Duke’s Devotees  

There is no fiercer allegiance than the relationship that Richmonders have to Duke’s Mayonnaise. 

There are few things that Southerners take more seriously than food. Combined with an almost fanatical dedication to the most iconic ingredients to exist below the Mason-Dixon line, it is no wonder that tattoos featuring Duke’s Mayo are becoming as commonplace as barbed-wire tattoos were in the ‘90s.

Tattoos have existed for thousands of years and it is clear that people get them for all sorts of reasons, from the banal to the sentimental. For example, chefs with delicate sprigs of microgreens and knives have become almost a prerequisite for working in a kitchen. The phenomenon has expanded from restaurants to the general public, which makes sense, as the bond between food and memory speaks to everyone, regardless of profession.

According to the Duke’s Mayonnaise website, founder Eugenia Duke began selling sandwiches with her homemade mayonnaise to soldiers in 1917 at Fort Sevier just outside of Greenville, South Carolina. Three years later, she was selling her sandwiches in drugstores and grocery stores in the area. By 1929, her mayonnaise was so popular that she could no longer handle the demand for the condiment, so she sold the business to the C.F. Sauer Company in Richmond, where it became the company’s flagship product.

As once noted in Southern Living, what separates Duke’s from other competitors comes down to texture and taste. The higher level of egg yolks lends to a creamier texture, and the addition of vinegar and paprika creates the signature tang which is beloved throughout the South. All this has created a devoted following that has inspired art, poetry, and most recently, tattoos (there’s even an Instagram account dedicated to tattoos featuring Duke’s). Last year, Duke’s decided to hold a tattoo giveaway at Yellow Bird Tattoo, and over 1,000 people signed up to choose from more than 40 designs, with spots for free mayonnaise tattoos disappearing within an hour.

Yellow Bird Tattoo is located at 2402 W Main St. in Richmond. Photo by Scott Elmquist

“We talked to a bunch of tattoo businesses but ultimately worked with Joseph Fessman [owner of Yellow Bird Tattoo] and he was so helpful,” says Rebecca Lupesco, brand manager of Duke’s Mayonnaise. “We needed someone passionate about the brand. He’s like family now.”

Last November, Duke’s invited the public to enter a competition to win a tattoo for themselves and someone else by explaining why they were fans of Duke’s. Over 120 duos applied, and nine pairs were selected to commemorate their passion for Duke’s permanently on their skin. The winners worked with tattoo artists for a custom design that would be unique to their story.

Conagher Haun entered the competition for himself and his grandmother, Zelda Robinson, who was surprised to learn the prize was a tattoo. “I thought we’d get a ballcap if we won,” she says. “He [Haun] said, “No, you get a tattoo”, and I said, ‘fan-damn-tastic.’ ”

Robinson grew up putting mayonnaise on hot dogs instead of ketchup or mustard, and went so far as to make her own. Haun kept the tradition alive by using mayonnaise as his hot dog topping but he also loved tomato sandwiches, which became the basis for their tattoo design. This is Robinson’s second tattoo. Her first was the Colorado state flower to commemorate Haun’s military service while he was stationed there. “It’s not as bad as having a baby,” she says of the tattoo process. “But like having a baby, [the pain] don’t last forever.”

Hanover’s Kathy Ashworth shows off one of her tattoos. Photo by Scott Elmquist.

Lauren Clark entered herself and her mother, Kathy Ashworth, to honor the matriarch of their family who was a fan of the mayonnaise and an excellent cook. Both are from Hanover, which is known for its tomatoes, which are highly sought-after because of their taste. The pair ultimately decided on a tattoo depicting a picnic basket that includes tomatoes, a loaf of bread, and most significantly, a recipe card which reads, “Love always, mama”, in Clark’s grandmother’s handwriting along with a jar of Duke’s. “My mother was a huge, huge Duke’s fan. No other mayo was allowed in the house,” says Ashworth.

Lauren Clark’s picnic basket tattoo. Photo by Scott Elmquist

When Clark entered the contest, she kept it a surprise, but her mother was happy to get a tattoo with her daughter. “There was no hesitation, I was all in. Matching tattoos with your oldest daughter? Heck yeah,” says Ashworth.

Clearly, these tattoos mean more than a jar of mayonnaise. For many, specific memories connect us to a particular meal. Sometimes it is about the taste, but far more often our memories are connected to the people we shared a meal with and how they made us feel in that moment. As Robinson says, “You got a tattoo to remember somebody special.”

Now these duos have a permanent reminder of how food nourishes us not just physically, but more importantly, emotionally.

To learn more about Duke’s Mayonnaise, click here. To learn more about Yellow Bird Tattoo, click here

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