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Honoring a legend: Making 10,000 sandwiches with cult favorite Duke’s mayo

‘When I heard they were making 10,000 sandwiches, I immediately knew I had to volunteer,’ said Jorge Barrales about the effort to feed the hungry

Volunteers in Greenville, S.C., boxed up exactly 10,0000 sandwiches on National Sandwich Day. (Courtesy of VisitGreenvilleSC)

As much as a mayonnaise can elicit a cult following, Duke’s Mayonnaise appears to have one. Professional and home chefs alike have been known to wax poetic about the tangy spread, with fans even using the empty jars for both weddings and funerals.

“I don’t associate with chefs that don’t use it. Or else, I enlighten them,” chef John Fleer, nominee for James Beard’s best chef award five times, once told NPR, adding that, “When they teach you how to make mayonnaise in culinary school, they are essentially teaching you how to make Duke’s.”

The person who invented the mayonnaise, Eugenia Duke, is said to have made 10,000 sandwiches in a single day in 1918, adding to her legend as a women’s rights activist and an entrepreneur ahead of her time.

This recently prompted people in Greenville, S.C., where her feat of sandwich speed is said to have occurred, to get together to re-create her endeavor, but this time to donate the sandwiches to people who are hungry.

“When I heard they were making 10,000 sandwiches, I immediately knew I had to volunteer,” said Jorge Barrales, who runs Papi’s Tacos in Greenville with his father.

Barrales, 38, said he uses Duke’s mayo in tortas, the traditional Mexican street sandwiches he makes at his restaurant.

“Duke’s mayo with lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, onions, jalapeños and carnitas — there’s nothing like it,” he said. “I’ve wrapped more than a couple of tortas, so I figured I qualified as a sandwich maker and wrapper.”

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Taryn Scher, spokesperson for the tourist group VisitGreenvilleSC, organized the effort, saying the need to feed the hungry is acute.

“There are a lot of people hurting, now more than ever,” Scher said. “This was a way to kick off the giving season and let them know that we see them and hear them.”

Plus, when Duke’s is involved, she said, people will show up. There’s even a bridge in downtown Greenville named after Eugenia Duke.

Duke started a sandwich-making enterprise in her kitchen in 1917 to pay the bills while her husband was fighting in World War I. The following year, she is said to have made 10,000 pimento cheese, chicken salad and egg salad sandwiches with her mayo in a whirlwind of a day. (As the story was told through the generations, it’s possible it glosses over some helping hands she had making the sandwiches.)

Duke sold them for 10 cents apiece — making 2 cents profit — to army canteens, textile mills and downtown shops, and used the earnings to buy a delivery truck and begin bottling her special spread made with egg yolks, oil and cider vinegar.

Scher recently thought this was a perfect jumping off point to send out an email to hotels, restaurants and other businesses in Greenville asking for volunteers.

They called their event “10k in a Day,” noting that the sandwiches — made of pimentos, cheddar cheese, mayo, tomato and bacon — would be distributed to charitable organizations to hand out to anyone in need.

On Nov. 3, more than 300 people showed up at the Wyche Pavilion — an event center on the Reedy River that was home to the original Duke’s mayonnaise factory — to spend the day putting sandwiches together.

Several Greenville businesses joined in on the event, including Feed & Seed, a local food nonprofit.

Adam Sturm, the charity’s operations manager, said his volunteers used 1,000 pounds of cheddar cheese and 100 gallons of Duke’s mayo (donated by the Duke’s factory in nearby Mauldin, S.C.) to make several giant batches of sandwich filling.

In a nod to Eugenia Duke, Sturm said they mixed in pimentos to pep up the mix, then added bacon bits and diced tomatoes to give the concoction a twist.

“We called our sandwich a BPT — a southern classic on white bread that anyone would like,” he said, adding that he initially wondered how they were going to find enough people to take 10,000 sandwiches.

“But then it hit me that there were 10,000 people out there who really needed them,” said Sturm, 40. “I was happy to play a part.”

Volunteers worked in two-hour shifts over six hours to assemble 20,000 pieces of bread (purchased with donations) spread them with filling and attach a number to each bagged sandwich.

After the last bag had been tagged with the number 10,000, volunteers from Meals on Wheels and Loaves and Fishes delivered the sandwiches to about 25 local food pantries, homeless shelters, ministries and school groups in Greenville.

Jonathan Brashier, vice president of commercial strategy for VisitGreenvilleSC, spent some time on the sandwich line.

“I’m the biggest fan of Duke’s in the world,” he said, noting that when he was in his 20s and moved to Chicago, he was aghast when he couldn’t find his favorite brand in local stores.

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“I called my family and they shipped me four emergency jars,” said Brashier, 48.

“I can’t think of a better way to honor Eugenia Duke than by feeding people in a community that ties back to her history,” he added.

Duke ran her company until 1929, when she sold it to C.F. Sauer Co. and moved to Oakland, Calif., with her husband, Harry Duke. She died in 1968 at age 90.

As the years passed, her legend grew in Greenville, said Brashier, noting that his grandmother and aunt weren’t alone in adding a cup of Duke’s mayo to everything from mashed potatoes to chocolate cake.

“The essence of Duke’s is that it’s much more than a condiment to put on a sandwich,” he said.

Heather Meadors Whitley said she doesn’t like mayonnaise of any kind, even though she grew up near the Duke’s factory outside of Greenville. But that didn’t stop the volunteer and outreach coordinator for Auro Hotels from signing up to help stuff bags with sandwiches.

“Eugenia Duke had a storied history and I think we helped add to that legacy,” she said. “I’m not sure how she pulled off making 10,000 sandwiches by herself, though. In my group, it took 10 of us just to make 850.”

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