Mayonnaise Turns 100

This year Hellmann's celebrates its centennial. But Richard Hellmann made one fateful decision that made his namesake dressing possible.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

As you prepare the potato salad for your Fourth of July barbecue or your picnic, stop for a moment and wish your mayonnaise happy birthday. Love it or hate it, there's one brand that synonymous with mayo: Hellmann's.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) When you want to bring out the flavor and bring out the zest, just bring out the Hellman's and bring out the best.

WERTHEIMER: Hellman's mayonnaise was born 100 years ago in the kitchen of a New York City deli. WEEKEND EDITION Food Commentator Bonny Wolf has this biography.

BONNY WOLF, BYLINE: It almost never happened. If Richard Hellmann had not changed his mind - at the last minute - about taking the Titanic, his namesake mayonnaise would not exist. This is probably unimaginable to the millions of Americans who have grown up with Hellmann's, who have slathered it on their sandwiches, used it in their pasta salads. The story starts in 1905, two years after Hellmann arrived in New York City from Germany. He opened a deli on Columbus Avenue where he used his wife's recipe for mayonnaise made, as it is today, with eggs, oil and vinegar. It was so popular he started selling it in the wooden bowls used for weighing butter.

At first, Hellmann made two types. So, he put a blue ribbon around the best-quality one. Hellmann's Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise was trademarked in 1913, a year after the Titanic sank. By the late 1920s, Hellmann's was making three tons of mayo an hour. Meanwhile on the West Coast, Best Foods came up with its own brand of mayonnaise. In 1932, the two companies merged and to this day it's called Hellmann's east of the Rockies and Best Foods west of the Rockies. Different name, same product.

Hellmann's keeps up with the times. Now, there's light, low-fat and reduced fat. Versions are made with olive oil, canola oil and soybean oil. The company plans to use only cage-free eggs by 2020, and they use a lot of eggs - 60 million pounds a year. Some people prefer Kraft. Southerners swear by Duke's. Some of us even make our own. And a nothing-but-artisan mayonnaise store just opened in, where else, Brooklyn, selling black garlic, white truffle and, of course, bacon mayonnaises for your club sandwich. But for now, Hellmann's remains iconic, what most Americans expect when asked do you want mayo on that?

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UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) The whole egg, the whole egg, the whole egg goes into Best Foods new mayonnaise.

WERTHEIMER: Bonny Wolf is managing editor of AmericanFoodRoots.com.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) But Best Foods is the whole-egg mayonnaise.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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