Duke’s Chocolate Cake. (Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post)

I showed up at the gate of the C.F. Sauer Co. in Richmond this past summer pronouncing myself something of a mayonnaise scholar: “I wrote my master’s thesis on pimento cheese,” I told Erin Hatcher, who oversees the company’s Duke’s Mayonnaise label. As any Southerner knows, mayonnaise is perhaps pimento cheese’s most important ingredient; after all, it holds it all together.

But Hatcher almost blew my cover of detached academic when she began to tell me about Duke’s legions of dedicated fans. They send an endless stream of fan mail, she explained, including letters, recipes, concepts for television commercials and paintings. “Paintings of a jar with a sandwich,” she told me, arching her eyebrows. “A lot.”

Paintings?” I can be heard saying on a recording of our conversation. Though in a mayonnaise factory, I must have turned three shades of ketchup red: I myself had recently penned a small drawing of the yellow-lidded Duke’s jar. But paintings, it turns out, are fairly tame when it comes to Duke’s fandom. “You just would not believe,” Hatcher told me before launching into what one might call a Duke’s fan hall of fame.

There was the man on his hospital death bed who asked for a tomato sandwich made with Duke’s. There was the mother of the bride who, after the company made its switch from glass to plastic containers around 2005, demanded four glass jars with labels intact to use as centerpieces at her daughter’s wedding. And there was the elderly woman from North Carolina. She wrote in hopes of obtaining just three glass jars, saying she’d like to be cremated and have her ashes placed in the containers for her three daughters. Hatcher assured me that she followed through on that request.

Duke’s is mayonnaise with meaning, and its appeal is equal opportunity. The spread is as comfortable on white-bread sandwiches in brown paper sacks as it is on crudités and fine china. For almost a century, it has been there for work and pleasure. And it’s good: a thick, tangy mayonnaise that’s the worthiest mate for a ripe summer tomato.

Of course, not everyone is crazy for Duke’s. A product that has been regional for most of its history, it isn’t known nationwide — even though it’s the third-largest mayo brand in the United States, behind Hellman’s and Kraft, and is growing. Take Doug Bensley, originally from Upstate New York. He’d heard of Duke’s mayonnaise, because he’s married to the great-granddaughter of founder Eugenia Duke. But until he moved to North Carolina a few years ago, he’d never tried it. Out in California, where Eugenia Duke lived for many years, mayonnaise was just a small part of the family lore — a chapter from her southern days.

Eugenia Thomas was born in October 1881 in Columbus, Ga., the last in a brood of 10 children. Her South was one of transition, as the 1880s saw the initial shift from an agricultural to an industrial-based economy.

At 19, she married Harry C. Duke, an electrician who set up power plants across the South, and the couple eventually landed in Greenville, S.C., where he’d been named district supervisor for the Southern Power Co. Greenville historian Judith Bainbridge writes that the job “should have been a well-paying position, yet between 1915 and 1920 . . . the family moved three times, from house to apartment to house.”

A desire to contribute to the family income led Eugenia to start a sandwich-making business in her home kitchen. Her selection included pimento cheese, egg salad and chicken salad. It was August of 1917, and six miles north of Greenville, thousands of soldiers moved into Camp Sevier for training. With the help of Martha, her only child, who was known as the Sandwich Queen, Eugenia began selling sandwiches to YMCA-run Army canteens for a dime apiece. Ten cents covered the cost of the ingredients and the round-trip railroad fare to Camp Sevier — about 50 cents — and allowed a profit of 2 cents per sandwich. Obviously, she had to sell a lot of sandwiches to amass much of an income, but she did.

The story goes that in 1918, Eugenia sold almost 10,000 sandwiches in one day and put the money toward a Duke’s delivery truck. That’s probably an exaggeration (or it glosses over some of the unnamed workers who must have helped Eugenia and Martha), but the number says a lot about the demand for Eugenia’s products.

In addition to selling at Camp Sevier, she supplied sandwiches to downtown canteens, multiple Main Street stores and textile mills. At the mills, formal meal breaks were replaced by dope carts — wagons that wheeled through, selling the likes of sandwiches and “dopes” (colas).

But Eugenia didn’t sell only to the working class. She also set up shop in the Ottaray Hotel in downtown Greenville, where she sold dainty sandwiches. City directories from the 1920s list Mrs. Eugenia Duke as president and treasurer of the Ottaray’s Duke Tea Room. Listed below her is Mr. Harry C. Duke.

For Eugenia and other entrepreneurial housewives of the New South, food became a window into business ownership, financial independence and creativity. Andrew Smart, current president of Duke Sandwich Co., puts it this way: “Here’s a woman in 1917 who was an entrepreneur and was a business leader in a time before she even had the right to vote.”

Thankfully, Eugenia didn’t stop with sandwiches. Inspired by letters from soldiers requesting the recipe for her sandwich spreads, she began bottling mayonnaise as a separate product around 1923. She used oil, egg yolks and cider vinegar, which gave the mayonnaise a particular tang, and she left out sugar, rationed during wartime.

By 1929, she couldn’t keep up with demand. Rather than expand her label, she offered it to the C.F. Sauer Co. and sold the recipes for her sandwich spreads to her bookkeeper, Alan Hart. Both businesses still operate near Greenville, though Duke’s Mayonnaise also has a factory in New Century, Kan., which has greatly expanded distribution.

As for Eugenia, she and Harry moved West, following their daughter — Martha Duke the Sandwich Queen — when Martha married a soldier from Los Angeles. Within a year of moving to Oakland, Eugenia opened a new business. Because she had sold the Duke’s name — twice — she called it the next best thing: the Duchess Sandwich Co. As had been the case in Greenville, Duchess sandwiches sold to cafes and drugstores. When World War II came along, Eugenia also secured a contract with the shipyard to operate the concession under the Duchess umbrella. She eventually sold Duchess to two of Genie’s brothers-in-law, who later moved to San Francisco and opened the Duchess Catering Co.

Eugenia died in 1968 at age 90, 13 years after her husband. His obituary credits him with founding the Duchess Sandwich Co., perhaps obscuring Eugenia as the visionary businesswoman that she was. Even her granddaughter Genie, who called her “Cush,” didn’t know she had owned a business beyond mayonnaise back in Greenville. “My grandma Cush never told me that she had a sandwich company there,” she said. The connection to Duke’s mayonnaise was surprising to some family members, too. As Genie’s son-in-law told her after living in North Carolina for awhile, “Mom, I think there’s a cult following.”

Before 2006, Duke’s focused its distribution to Georgia and the Carolinas, where it ranks as the best-selling mayo brand, but has since expanded it to include 19 states — plus some outlying places here and there where an independent seller has purchased their product for resale. As Genie now knows, you can find Duke’s in many Southern states and well beyond (including at most of the Washington area supermarket chains). Her sister recently called to relay a friend’s message: “You won’t believe this. They have Duke’s mayonnaise in Oakdale, California.” Genie’s response? “Well, go get yourself some.”

When Genie told me that, we were seated in a new Panera Bread by her home in Charlotte, N.C., where she moved a few years ago to be near her daughter. It was the restaurant’s opening day, so we waited some 20 minutes for a place to sit. “This place is still doing a booming business,” Genie said as crowds continued through the door about an hour into our visit. “I can’t believe it.”

I could. As her grandmother’s story confirmed, you can do a lot with some bread and some mayonnaise (even if, as at this Panera, it’s not Duke’s). Paired with intellect and drive, it was bread and mayonnaise that empowered a southern woman to care for herself and her family, and to build a powerful brand that is certainly worthy of a little hype — perhaps even a painting.

Wallace is a writer and illustrator based in Durham, N.C. She is also an editor for the quarterly Southern Cultures quarterly at UNC-Chapel Hill. This piece is an edited version of a presentation she gave at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in October. She can be reached through her Web site, eewallace.com.