Sunday, December 05, 2010

Does Authenticity Matter? Pimentos

The authentic pimento?

The authentic pimento?
I'm currently somewhat obsessed by pimento cheese, having had so many splendid examples in various restaurants and venues over the past year and spent a considerable time trying to perfect my own home version.

One of the versions that caught my attention was that of Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch in Atlanta.  He makes his with a blend of white cheddar and extra sharp yellow cheddar along with homemade mayonnaise (from local farm eggs), tabasco, and black pepper and--the kicker--real Georgia pimentos that he buys fresh and roasts himself, being sure that a little of the black char from the skin gets into the mix.

"Georgia used to produce a huge amount of true red pimentos for pimento cheese, the classic Southern staple," Hopkins told Creative Loafing Atlanta a while back. "But now it all goes to the canning industry. So you don't see them here anymore. The local farmers don't have them; it's all done by the big agribusiness."  

What Hopkins says is almost all correct, but for perfect accuracy you would have to remove the words "now" and "anymore."  Georgia did indeed produce huge amounts of red pimentos in the past, but from the very beginning they weren't produced by small local farmers but rather by "big agribusiness."

No one in the South had even heard of a pimento pepper until well after the Civil War.  Through most of the 19th century, the word "pimento" meant allspice, the unripe berries of the Eugenia Pimenta evergreen from Jamaica and the West Indies.  The spice was popular throughout the United States, and oil from Jamaican pimento berries was prescribed as a purgative and toothache remedy.

Pimento was not used as a term for red peppers until the 1880s, when sweet peppers from Spain began being imported to the United States, packed in tin cans (which themselves were a relatively new innovation).  Not long after, recipes calling for “sweet Spanish peppers” began appearing in print.  In the 1887 edition of Miss Parloa's Kitchen Companion, Maria Parloa noted that such a pepper, when green, “is much milder than the common bell-pepper, although they look so much alike it is often difficult to distinguish them.”  She recommended that they be stuffed and baked.  Thomas Jefferson Murrey, one of the most popular cookbook authors of the era, was a proponent of the sweet pepper, too, incorporating it into recipes for salmon a la Creole, boiled beef salad, and omelet with Spanish pepper.

By the late 1890s, Americans were calling these imported peppers by their Spanish name, pimiento.  Soon the “i” was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them “pimentos”.  Thanks to their bright red color, which helped liven up salads and other dishes, and their mild, sweet flavor, pimentos became one of the darlings of the "domestic science" school of cookery instructors, and their magazine articles and cookbooks advanced the pepper's adoption in home kitchens nationwide.

While the peppers were popular throughout the country, the South--specifically, the state of Georgia--became the center of the American pimento industry.  Imported Spanish pimentos were expensive, and a few enterprising Peach State residents saw an opportunity to get into the game.  Around 1911, farmers affiliated with the Georgia Experiment Station outside of Griffin, Georgia, began trying to cultivate a domestic pimento.  Working with imported Spanish varieties, Samuel D. Riegel identified the plants most suitable for the Georgia soil and from them developed the “Truhart Perfection” pimento, which became the basis of a new local industry.

In 1914, Riegel's son, Mark, invented a roasting machine that made peeling the peppers easier, and the next year he founded the Pomona Products Company to can them commercially.  By the 1920s, a flourishing pimento industry had developed in and around Griffin.  1938 was the peak year, with 25,000 acres under cultivation, and the Pomona Products Company alone was producing 10 million cans per year.  California growers began competing with Georgia around this time, but the Peach State remained the leading producer of the little red peppers until at least the 1960s.

So, from the very beginning, pimento peppers were grown on a large scale with the express intent of being canned and nationally distributed.  The pimentos used by your Southern grandmother in her special pimento cheese recipe were, in all probability, purchased in a tin can or glass jar, even if she lived in Georgia.

But, does that make pimento cheese made with fresh pimentos somehow "inauthentic?"

Linton Hopkins has developed strong relationships with local organic farmers near Atlanta who are interested in heirloom varieties, including Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organic Farms, who began supplying him with fresh, locally-grown pimentos.  I was thrilled when I found this out, because--while you can apparently get them during the summer in various farmers markets--I don't recall ever seeing a fresh pimento pepper myself.  I'm dying to try making pimento cheese from fresh peppers as soon as summer rolls back around and I can maybe track down some pimentos at a roadside market.

What could be tastier?  And if, strictly speaking, using the fresh peppers is not really authentic to the way the iconic cheese spread was made in the past, I don't why we shouldn't try to make these old recipes even better by using fresh ingredients.  And, at the same time, I see no reason to feel guilty about using diced pimentos from a jar.
Now, all of this might have you wondering how we started mixing those canned pimento peppers into a cheese spread in the first place.  As it turns out, pimento cheese itself has a long and curious history, and one, in fact, of highly questionable authenticity.  But that's a topic for a later time.

I'm off to the store for a jar of pimentos to whip up some pimento cheese.


Nicole said...

Great piece! Can't wait to get you in the film, Robert.

Robert said...

Thanks, Nicole. I'm looking forwarded to it, too!

Janet said...

A tip of the hat to you, good sir. Please make this your next book subject. PIMENTO CHEESE!!!!
(ps. My favorite version is from "Frank Stitt's Southern Table." If you don't have it, I'll send you the recipe.)
Also, in your book, can you please include a chapter called "Big Shreds vs. Little Shreds: The Debate Rages On."
My vote is for Big Shreds.

Robert said...

Oh, dear, Janet. I had no idea you were one of those Big Shredians (sort of has a Gulliver's Travels ring to it, doesn't it?). I am a direhard Lil' Shreddist myself. Just tonight I made a batch of (little shredded) pimento cheese and took copious pictures, with the intension to write a post on my newest favorite home recipe. Stay tuned!

Robert said...

I just read all my comments and realized my spelling is atrocious (yet, I can somehow manage to spell "atrocious"). Bear with me.

Janet said...

Hmmm...Feeling a little sad. I mean--it's not a deal breaker or anything, but...small shreds? Really? (sigh)
Well, I suppose pimento cheese of the small shred variety is still pimento cheese, so I'm sure we'll mend this little rift...someday.

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