Fortunes have been made.
The world of southern mayonnaise is as intriguing as any Tennessee Williams drama ever writ. Seismic rifts have jarred entire states over this fine emulsion.
Marie-Antoine Carême, the father of mayonnaise, emerged from the kitchens of 19th century France as a lion of haute cuisine.
Reflecting back on his life spent cooking over primitive, hot stoves he would exclaim: “Charcoal kills us, but what does it matter? The shorter the life, the greater the glory!”
Spoken like a true lover of mayonnaise.
Carême would not even live to be 50 but it could be said that if his life was short it was full. To this day young chefs grow wistful over the mention of his name. You’ll see their eyes slightly glaze as they wistfully repeat the word mayonnaise over and over. If you visited their apartments, Carême’s The Art Of French Cookery would surely have a prominent place on their bookshelf.
Carême cooked for Napoleon, Czar Alexander, Louis XVIII, and George IV but his most storied accomplishment was the invention of mayonnaise.
No one less than the French could have ever imagineered this miracle sauce into being.
Gamblers, preachers, drifters, schoolmarms, and roustabouts all love mayonnaise equally.When I was a kid growing up in the Cumberland Highlands mountains of Eastern Kentucky, JFG was the standard-bearer brand of mayonnaise. The company, founded in Tennessee in 1882 by James Franklin Goodson, had an 83 year run before being sold to Louisiana’s Reily Foods in 1965. The most famous citizen of Tennessee, Elvis, would’ve wallowed in a trough of mayonnaise had the opportunity presented itself.
His love of the sauce is an important part of his myth.
Today, one state over, 350 workers stand shoulder to shoulder in a massive mayonnaise factory in Mauldin, South Carolina. They have one goal: make the region known as The Upstate a major player in the Deep South’s mayonnaise wars. The company in charge of their weal? Duke’s.
Giant vats churn with egg yolks, fat, and apple cider vinegar while employees jauntily stroll in and out of the bespoke factory. Picture Charlie Chaplin’s early film work and the scene practically sets itself. Every day a million pounds of oil is used along with some 70,000 pounds of egg yolks at this facility.
On summertime picnics the good people of South Carolina take to the meadows of their state with little more than tubs of Duke’s, red ripe tomatoes, and squishy white bread. If the market is sold out of Duke’s then they trudge back home to sit in darkness til Duke’s returns to their grocer’s shelves. Carolinians claim that other brands will not do.Mayonnaise inspires fierce loyalty – generally driven home by an important family member while the young eater is still in development stage. “This is a Blue Plate household,” an aged auntie might urgently whisper as she slathers up a fried baloney sandwich with the stuff.
Mustard and ketchup are mere pretenders when held under the steady gaze of mayo. What a fine condiment for red-blooded southerners. Just think of the miracle sauces that spring from dear mother mayonnaise: Kumbak, bleu cheese, green goddess and ranch dressing. After all, what is béarnaise but a fancified mayonnaise?
Anybody that’s been to a county fair or a goat-roping knows that nothing drives sales like slathering mayonnaise on deep-fried foods. The mayonnaise cartels of the early 20th century rode around in Studebakers drinking champagne from foot-long oxen horns, and puffing on thick Cuban cigars while thousands of carnies, ankle-deep in sawdust, unknowingly did their bidding.
It is said that there were some 600 brands of mayonnaise of that era; all fervently competing for the consumer dollar.From the Duke’s country of the Carolinas, head west into Alabama and you’ll find an allegiance of the highest order to BAMA mayonnaise. In 1924, brothers A.N and S.M Chappell registered the trademark BAMA with the United States Patent Office. The young entrepreneurs were off to the races and just two years later had perfected a mayonnaise recipe that was so prized they revisited the Patent Office to secure a trademark for that foodstuff as well as their peanut butter.
The good people of the Yellowhammer State took to their local grocery shelves with zeal, and both products were often assembled into one glorious sandwich. With sales mounting, The Bama Company was born. A dynastic treasure was assured when corporate behemoth the Borden Company came along and bought the Chappell family’s concern for 400,000 shares of common stock worth $17 million in 1965.
A fortune had been made.
Alabamians displaced abroad have been known to pay a king’s ransom to have their beloved Bama mayonnaise airmailed to them.
But in the constellation of southern mayonnaise one star shines above all others: Blue Plate.
In 1924, a group of New Orleans investors led by A.D (Pat) Geoghegan and A.Q Petersen purchased the Southern Cotton Oil Company for $9,000,000. After organizing a Louisiana corporation of the same name, they plotted their course, and just three months later changed the name to Wesson Oil and Snowdrift Company Inc.
The hard-charging executives in charge of the concern watched the first commercial mayonnaise, Mrs. Schlorer’s, skyrocket in popularity in Pennsylvania and were determined to get in on the landrush of profits. One in particular, Charles A. Nehlig, chief operating officer of subsidiary company Gulf and Valley Cotton Oil Company was resolute.He tasked J.B Geiger, an engineer, with creating a local mayonnaise that would fly off the shelves of New Orleans grocery stores.
With seed money of $5,000, the company purchased a Hobart mixer and set up a small manufacturer in Gretna across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.
By 1937, Blue Plate Foods was so successful the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation authorized the company to purchase 100 railroad carloads of cottonseed oil for their burgeoning mayonnaise company. Blue Plate became such a major player that by 1941 the US Navy contracted with the company to purchase over $500,000 in salad oil.By 1943, the Blue Plate factory had moved into New Orleans proper and was housed in a soaring 93,000 square foot factory in the city’s Gert Town neighborhood. In that halcyon era you would’ve been hard-pressed to escape the cultural phenomenon that Blue Plate had become in New Orleans.
First timer samplers inevitably gazed upon the jar of Blue Plate as though it were some sort of Aztec Sun Stone. It became doctrine in greater New Orleans that Blue Plate was the one true mayonnaise.
Walking down Canal Street in the city’s main shopping district you may have found yourself having a hot meal at the luncheonette of Woolworth’s where a fat cheeseburger combo cost .50c and you could tack on a frozen malt for a dime more. The lunch ladies who worked as short order cooks had a nigh diabolical secret weapon up their sleeves; the hamburger buns were slathered with mayonnaise before being toasted on the hot griddle. After a few minutes of frying, the buns were plated and then a second layer of cold mayo was carefully spread on the toasty bun.
By this point the beef patty and cheese were mere afterthoughts. Your denouement was nearly complete. Especially savvy diners would then take their fries and dunk them in more mayonnaise. The brand? Blue Plate.
Less than a five minute walk away, the pashas of the Boston Club lived well under the spirit of Cicero who famously said: “Let us eat, drink, enjoy life, after death there is no pleasure.” After a few tumblers of rum punch, a well-considered meal of des écrevisses avec une sauce rémoulade surely fortified the spirit. I’d wager that rémoulade and Blue Plate were boon companions in the Club’s kitchen.
That’s how the gourmands of mid-century New Orleans lived their lives.In 1960, California tomato giant Hunt Foods and Industries announced they would be merging with New Orleans’ Wesson and Blue Plate Foods creating a $300,000,000 industry giant. An interminable decade and a half would pass before Blue Plate was brought back under local control by W. Boatner Reily III of Reily Foods.
If the Olympia Brass Band performed a joyous parade upon Blue Plate’s return, the tale has been lost to the sands of time.
Be the cafe high dollar or humble, mayonnaise is a practical currency that’s well-traded on New Orleans menus. Whether it be the ancient, white-gloved Creole waiter serving you a crab ravigote or a tattooed and besotted line cook dressing up your hot sausage po boy – you can rest assured that the brand will be Blue Plate
Worlds may collide should a different mayonnaise enters the canon of your favorite restaurant’s cook brigade.
But for mayonnaise naysayers the very word induces shudders. Who are these strange people? Coarse, crude-palated folks who view food as little more than fuel for their workaday lives. A sandwich, dry as dust with nary a skift of mayonnaise is a trophy for these poor lost souls who would be best suited eking out a living as a rural parson.
They’ll never know the pleasure of a fried oyster loaf served with a heavy drift of rich mayonnaise.
New Orleans is a city well-stocked with Greeks, Croats, Canary Islanders, Hondurans, Filipinos, Irish, Cajuns, Lebanese, and Creole. There are a few Americans afoot as well. We all unite under a near-common love of mayonnaise.
You may find us down in the old Faubourg Sainte Marie neighborhood with our sleeves rolled up at the 82 year old Mother’s Restaurant. Our plate will be crowded with the well-known Ferdi Special, a combination of roast beef debris, house-made ham, and pan drippings crammed into a massive French loaf with a surfeit of mayonnaise binding the whole glorious mess together.
Perhaps the oddest homage to the venerated Blue Plate Foods concern came about in the 70s when a band calling themselves Blue Plate Mayonnaise issued a single on the Kin-Tel Music imprint. Last Summer Picnic is a sprawling, sun-soaked bit of psychedelia in the spirit of Love with a bit of Pink Floyd thrown in for good measure. The cut features musician Ford Kinder who hails from Atlanta, a long-time hotbed of mayonnaise.It’s 1975. You’re sitting at the 1877-era Bon Ton Cafe on Magazine Street. A chicory cafe noir is your refreshment. Blue Plate ads are chockablock in the States-Item newspaper that rests on your lap. Fried freshwater catfish is on the table and the kicker is Chef Alzina Pierce’s special sauce, a holy marriage of mayonnaise, hot sauce and some transcendent Cajun spices from Miss Alzina’s home of Lafourche Parish.
AM radio is the fashion of the day and WWL is playing Last Summer Picnic when you step off the curb into your Oldsmobile Cutlass. You speed off. There are romances to be kindled. And in the finest city in the South – fortunes to be made.