Now listen little children and I’ll tell you a tale. It’s a story of how agricultural fortitude, culinary finesse, and a lawmaker with diplomatic ties can change everything – including the delicious creamy filling you slather on your daily bread.
Once upon a time in a kingdom way far away known as Upstate New York, local cheesemongers had a hankering in their hearts to upstage those French cheese makers across the sea. And so these men of curds, whey, and daring do set about crafting their own version of Neufchâtel, a spreadable soft and delicious unripened cheese that had been made by Norman monks since the Middle Ages. Lo and behold, these late 19th century cheesemongers succeeded – even improved upon it some say, by adding cream to the mix. Unlike its French cousin, this cheese was mild rather than mushroomy and more creamy than crumbly. “American Neufchâtel,” as it came to be called, was sold in little cakes, and the people loved it.
Meantime, the convergence of the Industrial Age and the advent of home economics encouraged local pantries, larders, and dinner tables to further flourish. New means of processing and transporting food from other parts of the world ushered in an exciting era of readily available, seemingly exotic foreign foodstuffs. Among them, pimiento peppers. In this Golden Age of industrial canning and food science, the unassuming little Spanish pepper, processed and imported in tins, became the subject of much ooh-ing and ah-ing by leaders in the arena of domestic science.
Prized for their bright red color and mild, sweet flavor, the peppers seemed a natural companion to American Neufchâtel. In the 1910 publication Fancy Cheese in America, Johan D. Frederickson of Little Falls, New York was credited with a manufacturing recipe for Pepper Cream Cheese or Pimento. “To 10 pounds of American Neufchatel cheese add one-fourth pound to one-half pound of red peppers,” the recipe read. “The peppers should first be put through a meat-mincing machine and ground to a pulp. The cheese and peppers are then mixed and pressed into rectangular shape.” It was one of the first mentions of “pimento cheese” in print, and the combination of the ruby-red Spanish pepper and cheese caught on like wildfire with those who loved “spicy foods” and “dainty sandwiches.”
It’s at this point in the story that both the South and Macon enter the picture. Now, importing these peppers in little tins or otherwise was expensive, so stateside farmers decided to grow their own. Production in California swelled, supplying much of the land with its demand for the peppery half of the dish they had come to know as pimento cheese. That is, until a couple of Georgia boys decided they could do better.
About that time, farmers S.D. Riegel and his sons of Experiment, Georgia, purchased seeds for a strain of pimento pepper from the Moore Seed Company in Philadelphia. After cultivating the peppers – and comparing them to those imported directly from Spain – they found the second-hand strain inferior. “As we were anxious to procure the best strain of this class of peppers, we concluded that we would try to procure seed from Spain,” the elder Reigel later recounted.
The Reigels approached Congressman Charles Lafayette Bartlett of Macon to reach out to the Spain for real-deal pimiento pepper seeds. The attorney and former solicitor general of Macon’s Judicial Court used his influence as a state representative to acquire the pepper seeds from the Spanish consul, and the Reigels were off to the races.
The farmers continued to grow and improve the pimento pepper, ultimately developing their prized Perfection Pimento. The cultivation of the Reigel’s strain of pimento, combined with a roasting method they developed for removing the pepper’s tough skin, sowed the seeds for an industrial canning facility on the Reigel’s farm. The Spalding County cannery was hugely successful, and it paved the way for a bustling new farming enterprise that put a salve on the nearly mortal wound the boll weevil had dealt Georgia planters. Commercial pepper production also brought acclaim for the state – as the Pimento Pepper Capital of the World.
The late Craig Claiborne, celebrated food writer and the undisputed auteur of Southern shrimp and grits, estimated that by 1929, 90% of the pimento peppers grown in the U.S. came from Georgia and supporting commercial facilities in nearby states. The ample supply of superior pimentos and bragging rights to the peppers’ provenance inspired Southern cooks to also “improve” the recipe for pimento cheese.
Cheddar cheese was available and affordable – plus it was more piquant than cream cheese. However, the cheese, spices of choice, and diced pimentos required a creamy binding agent to hold it all together and maintain sandwich-friendly spreadability. Ideally, it needed to be a hard-working ingredient that would enhance the taste rather than drown out the other flavors, while also managing to keep the perky shredded cheese and cherry-hued peppers intact. It’s a job mayonnaise was practically born for. The egg and oil in mayonnaise provided texture and binding, and the citrus added a tangy little twang that hit just the right note.
And just like a sinner who goes down to the river to wash away his sins, pimento cheese was reborn.
Pimento cheese quickly became – and remains – one of the most iconic dishes of our time, and like all things truly Southern, it was favored and feted by rich and poor alike. The working class tucked pimento cheese sandwiches into their lunch pails every day while the O’Haras and Wilkeses of the world just cut the crusts off those sammies and served them at fancy parties. Though the recipe has spawned multiple iterations, some of which still contain cream cheese, the common denominators of classic Southern pimento cheese are sharp Cheddar, pimento peppers and mayonnaise (preferably homemade or Duke’s). Today, no holiday party, Southern Living cookbook collection, or Master’s Tournament would be the same without it.
And just remember, gentle reader, were it not for a dutiful congressman from Macon willing to lend a helping hand to industrious Georgia farmers and the whimsical hand of fate, all would be for naught. The gustatory gloriana we all have come to know as real pimento cheese wouldn’t even exist. Pepper jelly would have no purpose. Sandwich bread everywhere would ache for the filling that dare not speak its name. That’s a true fact, my friends.
And I for one find myself in Macon’s debt yet once more for a thing I love, and cannot imagine life without.