Love it or hate it, mayo is a condiment mainstay

There are plenty of mayo haters out there
Love it or hate it, mayo is a condiment mainstay
Photo by Julie Andrews

Ages ago, salsa eclipsed ketchup as America’s favorite condiment, but mayonnaise has become more popular, too. Love it or hate it – and there are those who find it downright disgusting — none of us agrees on how to pronounce it: may-uh-naze, may-naze or man-aze. The butchering of its pronunciation is no doubt because of the word’s French roots.

Originally called “mahonnaise,” a standard story says that it was conceived in 1756 to celebrate France’s capture of Mahón, the capital city of the Spanish island of Menorca. However, some dispute this claim saying the name was originally bayonnaise, named after the French city Bayonne in the Basque country. The basic concept of mayo makes up one of the grandes classic French sauces – hollandaise.

Most people know if you mix oil with a liquid that they repel each other. In making mayonnaise, egg yolks act as an emulsifier. Oil — at first added by droplets — beaten into the eggs produces a creamy, homogenized mass. In France, traditional mayonnaise contains vinegar or lemon juice and sunflower, peanut or bland vegetable oils are preferred over fruity olive oil. Additional ingredients are added to create other sauces, like garlic to make aioli or mustard to make remoulade.

In Philadelphia in 1907, Amelia Schlorer became the first person to market mayonnaise in a jar. But in New York, at about the same time, German immigrant Richard Hellmann started to sell his own mayo at his delicatessen. His customers couldn’t get enough, so in 1912 he began commercially manufacturing Hellmann’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise. Meanwhile, Best Foods started selling its product on the West Coast. Hellmann’s (which was owned by General Foods at the time) acquired Best Foods in 1932, but to this day the company continues to sell both brands regionally; Hellmann’s is sold in the East and Best Foods in the West. Many people don’t realize that Hellman’s advertising slogan, “Bring Out the Hellmann’s and Bring Out the Best” is actually a play on words.

For close to 100 years, Duke’s Mayonnaise has reigned as the first choice of Southern cooks to make potato salad and pimento cheese. Eugenia Duke of Greenville, South Carolina, started out in the sandwich business but was overwhelmed by patrons demanding the recipe for her delectable mayonnaise. At first she peddled a few sandwiches made with Duke’s mayo at a local market but, like Richard Hellman, eventually gave up making sandwiches for bottling mayonnaise full time. For years, Duke’s was available only in the South, but about a year ago it appeared on supermarket shelves in Madison. What makes it different from other brands is that it contains more egg yolks and no sugar.

Despite mayo’s current high esteem, there are plenty of mayo haters out there, including Rachael Ray, Jimmy Fallon and Barack Obama. Others insist that while they love aioli, they despise mayonnaise. It’s been dubbed “the devil’s condiment,” and there’s even an “I Hate Mayonnaise” Facebook page.

Personally, I love mayonnaise. I slather it on burgers, dip fries in it and can’t imagine a BLT without the creamy coup de grâce. As they say in New Orleans, “Everything is betta’ with MY-nez on it!”

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.