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Southern Salads: Egg Salad

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Whoever married mayonnaise with eggs to make the first egg salad certainly deserves accolades. Of course, that is thought to have happened some time ago—back in the 1700s—so not a lot is known about the who, where and why. Food historians suspect it all went down in France, where the first mayonnaise was whipped up around 1756. So, if you hear a Southerner offering up a heartfelt “Merci beaucoup, y’all” before spooning up some egg salad, you’ll know why.

Since the early 1900s, Americans have been chopping up hard-boiled eggs and binding them with mayo to create egg salad. Abundant and nutritious, eggs helped sustain generations during lean times, offering a rich source of protein that was also affordable. Cafes eventually put egg salad on their menus and diners responded with enthusiasm. Spread between bread or scooped onto crisp lettuce leaves and served with saltines, egg salad claimed its spot of honor as an American favorite.

But here in the South, it is a downright superstar. Family beach vacations would not be complete without a tub of homemade egg salad in the fridge right next to the pimento cheese. And luncheons would be sad gatherings, indeed, without a platter of egg salad finger sandwiches—crusts trimmed, of course. Need to feed a crowd without straining the budget? Well, invest in a dozen eggs, a large jar of mayonnaise and get cracking. And don’t forget the egg salad sandwiches served at Augusta National Golf Club. It's a well-known secret in these parts that these simple white-bread wonders run a close second in their hearts to the action on the greens.

While some egg salad purists stick with a simple recipe of eggs, mayo, salt and pepper, a lot of South Carolinians will insist it isn't “Southern egg salad” unless there’s a spoonful or two of sweet pickle relish and a little bit of mustard in the mix. Some crafty cooks hit it with a tad of horseradish to deliver a little surprise to the taste buds. Celery and onions are optional but highly favored by many. Hard-boiled eggs can be coarsely or finely chopped, mashed or made into a spread using a food processor. Add just enough mayonnaise to bind the ingredients or give the eggs a generous dollop for a creamier salad. Here’s a recipe, easy and basic, that incorporates all the basics of a classic Southern egg salad.

Classic Southern Egg Salad
4 hard-boiled eggs, cooled and peeled
¼ cup mayonnaise
1 tbs. sweet pickle relish
Salt and pepper

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients, adding salt and pepper to taste. Chill. Put a hand over your heart and give a hearty “Merci beaucoup, y’all” before serving.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.