It's a sure thing that when family gathers at my house for Thanksgiving dinner, there will certainly be a hot, gooey dish of homemade macaroni and cheese on the table.
It is my Thanksgiving specialty, leading my brother-in-law to nickname it "Ronda's macaroni and cheese," though it really isn't mine because I secured the recipe long ago from my Aunt Ozelle, one of the family's best cooks.
In the past few years, I have made it on televised cooking shows, given it to magazines that asked for my favorite recipe and posted it to my Web site, where it won rave reviews from those who tried it.
In short, I have shared its glorious glory across this nation.
Many years ago, when Aunt Ozelle gave me her recipe for what we call Glorious Macaroni and Cheese, she was specific about one ingredient.
"It calls for one cup of mayonnaise," she pointed out, then added, "I always use Duke's."
She shrugged in her casual way, where she tosses her hands up and purses her lips tightly together. Since Aunt Ozelle is wedded only to the law and gospel of the Scriptures and little else, I paid no attention to that directive.
After all, she didn't act like it was a very important detail. She gave me every reason to believe that any ol' mayo would do. So I bought expensive mayonnaise because I wanted to make the best possible dish.
Although Glorious Macaroni and Cheese, with a pound of sharp cheese, sauteed onions and pimentos and cream of mushroom soup - the ubiquitous ingredient of Southern cooking - claimed whatever fame it has through me, mine has never tasted nearly as good as Aunt Ozelle's.
Sometimes - though not always - when folks bragged on my dish, I would say, "If you think mine's good, you oughta taste my Aunt Ozelle's."
I couldn't figure out the difference, then last year as I was preparing Thanksgiving dinner and setting out the ingredients, it hit me like a bolt of lightning.
"Duke's Mayonnaise!" I exclaimed to myself. "That's it!"
I rushed to the grocery store only to find that they had put Duke's Mayonnaise on sale and sold out of it. I was soon to discover that the brand has a cult following in the South. Somehow, I had missed out on that.
To another store I went, bought the last jar on the shelf and went home to make it with the mayonnaise developed in 1917 by Mrs. Eugenia Duke of Greenville, S.C., then sold by her to the Sauer Company of Richmond, Va., in 1929. Over the years, not one ingredient has been changed from Mrs. Duke's original recipe, and it is still made in a plant in Greenville.
Not to one soul did I mention the change in mayonnaise brands, really not thinking it would be much of a notice anyway. However, it caused quite a stirring around the table.
Aunt Kathleen spoke first. "Oh my goodness! This Glorious Macaroni and Cheese is better than ever. It's out of this world."
"This is wonderful," Mary Nell commented. "Is something different?"
"Ronda, this is the best you've ever made," Mama said. "This is delicious."
I set down the pitcher of sweet tea on the counter and folded my arms. "I can't believe you noticed. I changed mayonnaise. I used Duke's like Aunt Ozelle does."
Now Duke's is the brand of choice for all my cooking, because a smart Southern woman figured out how to make mayonnaise with an undeniable kick.
Thanks to Mrs. Duke, it's going to be another delicious Thanksgiving at my house.
Hmmm. I can taste it now.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)" and "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."
SideBar: Glorious Macaroni and Cheese
1 8-ounce box elbow macaroni, cooked
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup Duke's Mayonnaise
1/4 cup pimentos, diced
1/4 cup onions, diced
1 pound cheese, grated
Saute pimentos and onions lightly in 3 tablespoons of margarine. Add all ingredients and mix together in large bowl. Salt to taste. Pour into greased casserole dish. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 F.
- Courtesy of Ronda Rich and Aunt Ozelle