By J. Ross Blankenship
Making turkey sandwiches after church one Sunday, I come to find a tapped bottle of mayonnaise in the fridge door. Mayonnaise, Hellmann’s in particular, is a non-negotiable in our house. Accordingly, I initiate a five-bell alarm and my wife lovingly goes to the grocery on our block to remedy the crisis while I remain in the kitchen breathing into a brown paper bag.
I grew up eating turkey sandwiches for lunch almost every day. Mom would pack me a sandwich that was made simply of turkey, havarti, salt, pepper and Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise. I don’t recall exactly when this trend started, but I know I ate a turkey sandwich for lunch almost every day in junior high and high school, a habit I carried over into college, and later into graduate school. I now force myself to eat salads most days at work in what feels like an already lost battle against my waistline. But I always want a sandwich, and on Sundays, I whip this desire up into a sort of meditative practice.
Though I’ve added a slice of heirloom tomato and arugula to the recipe and updated the bread from Sara Lee Honey Wheat to Dave’s Killer Thin-Sliced Good Seed, the foundation of the sandwich has remained the same: turkey, havarti, salt, pepper and always, always Hellmann’s. Over time this sandwich has transformed from a convenient, easy-to-make lunch option into a sort of nostalgic totem, the familiarity and simplicity as important as the taste, the repetitive nature of the thing not an annoyance but an opportunity to rest in the comfort of something known well.
When my wife returns from the grocery, she reveals a small container that reads Duke’s Real Mayonnaise on the label. “It’s all they had,” she says, anticipating my question, preparing to encounter my faithful observance of The Family Mayonnaise. I smile a resigned smile. I take the small yellow-capped container and mentally prepare for what I assume will be an all-but-broken mayonnaise that slides too easily off my knife, better resembling cottage cheese than my beloved Hellmann’s. “Sweet Lord,” I pray, “just don’t be like Kraft Mayo.” I twist off the yellow cap, dip a butter-knife, and give the blade a lick. Thick, tangy goodness, creamy and not at all sweet. What is this magical container?
Could it be so easy to toss off that with which I’d grown so accustomed? The turkey sandwich and its constituent parts has become such a core part of my life, maybe even part of my identity, and at its very essence is the mayonnaise that binds the thing together and brings it to life. It is perhaps a strange type of comfort food, being not particularly cheesy or baked, but it’s comforting nonetheless. The attendant pleasure that comes from sitting in peace and eating a sandwich so profound, some days I muse with my wife about leaving my job to open a turkey sandwich truck. I’d rove the city on a mission of peace, spreading joy to the overworked, encouraging one and all to take lunch and by God enjoy it.
Fortunately, my wife always pulls my feet back to the ground, reminding me that perhaps the joy is in the eating rather than the making and that my perception might change if the turkey sandwich became my work. But who can say at this point? Until I tried Duke’s, I was a staunch Hellmann’s-man, converted in the blink of an eye.
Three months into my wholesale conversion to Duke’s, I’m at the lake with my family making lunch and am met with another mayo crisis. All I see in the fridge is Kraft - not today Satan - until mom redirects my gaze to the Hellmann’s.
“Mom,” I say, “haven’t you ever had Duke’s? It’s so much better!”
“Better than Hellmann’s?” she says, “I’ve never even heard of it.”
I then relay my experience with Duke’s. We bring up photos online, delight in Chef John Fleer’s opinion on the subject (“I don't associate with chefs that don't use it. Or else, I enlighten them”), and generally discuss the merits and shortcomings of various mayos for longer than would seem reasonable in any home outside the South.
Not one week later, I’m on the phone with dad wishing him a Happy Father’s Day when I hear mom in the background holler, “tell him I just bought some Duke’s!” Then all three of us are on the phone talking mayo and mom is telling me how excited she is to try it.
“Just try it right now,” I say, “I want to hear if you like it.”
“Ok,” she says, talking to dad now, “just squirt a little bit out on my finger.”
“Uh huh. It’s good,” she says, “it’s tangy. Alright, I may be a convert. But I’m gonna have to put it in some stuff first and see.”