Ashley Strickland Freeman follows the Duke's Real Mayonnaise diet.
Whether it is to make a three-layer strawberry-rhubarb cake or rum-spiked Bananas Foster bread moist, peach-filled crepes extra soft or Nashville hot chicken pieces tender and serve them with fluffy buttermilk cornbread waffles, the zippy condiment is her secret ingredient.
"I grew up with Duke's and really didn't know about any other kind of mayo until I went to culinary school in New York," says the Charleston, S.C., resident. "It was the only mayo my family ever used."
After earning a degree in journalism and one in culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City, she worked at the Oxmoor House test kitchens in Birmingham, Ala. That's when she realized she could pursue a career in food without being a chef. So she turned to writing recipes for cookbooks and becoming a food editor and food stylist.
That led to the dream of writing her own cookbook, but she didn't have a platform or a theme. It was Duke's that came to her rescue.
"One day, I opened up my refrigerator door and there was a mayo jar staring me in my face. A light bulb went off," she recalls.
Three years later, "The Duke's Mayonnaise Cookbook" (Grand Central Publishing; June 2020) came to fruition. Bold and beautiful, the 75-recipe book pops with the company's signature colors. Sunshine yellow, black and red are splashed throughout its chapters along with illustrations of the mayo jar. Renowned chefs share their "spiels" of how and why they fell in love with Duke's.
The cookbook is packed with both classic and unexpected recipes. Instead of a Southern standard — slices of spongy white bread slathered with mayo and stacked with sliced tomatoes — she features an avocado BLT sandwich layered with basil mayo and built on thick sourdough bread. A mayo-based chicken salad, studded with salted pistachios, dried sweetened cranberries and green onions, takes on a curry accent softened with honey. Generous amounts of mayonnaise make their way into chocolate chip cookies and a plum upside-down cake. There's even a pappardelle bolognese.
"I always loved my grandmother's bolognese sauce and I wanted to have a recipe that acknowledged her. But you don't put mayo in a spaghetti sauce, and so I incorporated it into the pasta," she says.
Freeman wanted to include familiar recipes and nouvelle ones.
"I looked at the content as a whole and kept in mind the difficulty of the recipe and what it would taste like. But as a food stylist, it also was important to me to make sure it was just as beautiful as it was tasty," she says.
Although the tangy and creamy Duke's is ingrained in her life, Freeman says she knows little about what goes into the mayo other than it has egg yolks, some vinegar and no sugar. Though Duke's actual recipe is shrouded in secrecy, she shares the story of how its creator, homemaker Eugenia Duke, built a roaring business. It all began in her Greenville, S.C., kitchen in 1917, when she began selling sandwiches to hungry soldiers training at nearby Camp Sevier during World War I.
"After selling her 11,000th sandwich, she purchased a delivery truck to help distribute the sandwiches that were in such high demand," Freeman writes. "The sandwiches were so popular that years later, after the war, soldiers would write to Eugenia requesting that she share her sandwich recipes and send jars of her homemade mayonnaise."
Five years later, her best salesman convinced her to focus on the mayo and sell it as a separate product. She sold her business in 1929 to Virginia-based C.F. Sauer Co., which expanded the product line and its reach geographically. The company changed hands last year and is now owned by N.C.-based Falfurrias Capital Partners, an equity firm.
All through the 100-plus years, the recipe has remained the same, according to Duke's.
If Freeman were to make a mayo, it would be like Duke's, featuring egg yolks and not whole eggs, a mild, neutral oil, white vinegar or lemon juice, absolutely no sugar and just a little seasoning, she says. "The simpler, the better."
For her cookbook, it was all Duke's all the time. She started with 100 or so recipes and whittled them down to 75. She left out a blondie recipe as she already had picked a fudgy brownie with peppermint frosting. An artichoke recipe with aioli was left out as it was too similar to the grilled okra with tomato aioli, which she liked better.
She says she didn't get any help from Duke's. There was no free mayo and she used her own kitchen. "I only got their blessings."
She used 26 48-ounce jars to test the 75 recipes over a six-month period. Not all of them worked at the get-go. The baking recipes all took her multiple tries. She tested the banana bread at least six times and a gingerbread Bundt cake 10 times before she got them just right.
"This is where my recipe development and testing knowledge came in handy," Freeman says.
There were times when she tested three or four recipes a day. In the process, she converted her husband — a mayo hater.
So will she write a "Duke's Mayonnaise Cookbook: Part 2" or she is mayo-ed out? Absolutely and no, she says, resoundingly.
"After six months of recipe testing and food styling, I had to take a little bit of a break. But after a month passed, mayo was back in my diet," she says, laughing.
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