Posted by: Food Lover | August 26, 2017

From Scientific Cuisine to Southern Icon: The Real History of Pimento Cheese


By: ROBERT MOSS
Originally Seen On: SeriousEats.com

The first time I really looked into the history of pimento cheese, I wrote a long article that opened, “Pimento cheese has a dirty little secret. The ‘pâté of the South’ isn’t really very Southern at all.”

What surprised me most at the time was discovering that this gooey concoction of shredded cheese, mayo, and diced red pimentos—a blend now considered one of the quintessential Southern foods—was actually invented somewhere else. After all, writers have called pimento cheese “a major southern institution,” something that is “held sacred by Southerners” and is “so ingrained in the lives of many Southerners that we don’t realize our passion for the stuff doesn’t exist outside the region.” How could pimento cheese, this most Southern of foods, possibly have been born outside the South?

Now, with a few years hindsight and a lot more research under my belt, I’m not so sure why I made such a big deal about where pimento cheese was invented. So many of the things considered to be iconic Southern foods today actually originated outside of the region. (We’ll look at several more in upcoming installments.) The entire history of food, after all, is the story of ingredients and recipes migrating from one spot on the globe to another and being transferred between cultures, often being transformed in the process. Why should pimento cheese be any different?

No, what’s more interesting about pimento cheese is not where it was born, but how it got where it is today. In its path through American food culture, it reversed the lapsarian pattern found in the tales of so many other dishes like cornbread and hoppin’ john, and it took quite a different route than the “elevation” narrative you see with something like shrimp and grits, which began as a humble breakfast food and was elevated by Southern chefs into a fine-dining entrée.

No, pimento cheese got its start up North—in New York, in fact—as a product of industrial food manufacturing and mass marketing.

No, pimento cheese got its start up North—in New York, in fact—as a product of industrial food manufacturing and mass marketing. Its story is one of redemption, of a wayward factory child adopted by a good Southern family, scrubbed up nice, and invited to Sunday dinner.

‘Scientific’ Home Cooking

Almost any pimento cheese recipe today calls for grated cheddar or a similarly firm cheese mixed with diced pimento peppers, mayonnaise, and any number of seasonings and special ingredients. Many cooks are quite adamant that you use homemade mayonnaise, while others start with fresh red peppers and roast them themselves. The original version started out as something quite different: the marriage of cream cheese and canned pimentos, two popular and newly-available products of the industrial food trade.

In the 1870s in New York State, farmers started making a soft, unripened cheese modeled after the French Neufchâtel. Within a few decades, at least five New York companies were marketing an American Neufchâtel, and they soon introduced cream cheese, a variant made by mixing cream with Neufchâtel curd and molding it into blocks in small rectangular wooden forms.

Though produced primarily in New York, cream cheese somehow became linked with the city of Philadelphia, and the New York-based Phenix Cheese became the market leader with its “Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese,” which was later acquired by the Kraft Cheese Company.

Around the same time, sweet red peppers imported from Spain first became available in the Americas. In the 1887 edition of Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion, Maria Parloa noted that these peppers, when green, are “much milder than the common bell-pepper, although they look so much alike it is often difficult to distinguish them.” She recommended stuffing and baking them.

Within a decade, imported Spanish peppers were being canned and sold by large food manufacturers, which not only boosted their popularity but also introduced the Spanish name pimiento. By the turn of the century most print source had dropped the “i” and were calling the peppers “pimentos.”

Cream cheese was the perfect food for the Domestic Science sensibility.

These two new, up-to-date products—cream cheese and red pimentos—were favorites of the practitioners of Domestic Science. Also known as “home economics,” it was a women-led social reform movement that sought to bring order and scientific precision to all aspects of the home, with a particular emphasis on scientific cooking and a neat dinner table. Cream cheese was the perfect food for the Domestic Science sensibility. It was soft and mildly flavored, and its clean white color connoted purity. That it was something new and sold by modern food manufacturers only added appeal, for the Domestic Scientists were champions of industrial canning and scientific food packaging. Before long, they were devising any number of inventive ways to incorporate cream cheese into salads and hors d’oeuvres: rolling it into balls to serve in lettuce cups or combining it with nuts or herbs, and stuffing it into celery sticks and hollowed radishes.

The Domestic Scientists loved canned pimentos, too, especially their mild, inoffensive flavor and their flashy red color. In 1899, the editors of the Boston Cooking-School Magazine included a cauliflower and pimento salad on their Monday dinner menu for August, noting that, “on account of their brilliant color, pimentos are a pleasing addition to many a salad, and when used sparingly their sweet, mild flavor is usually relished.”

The New Packaged Food

It wasn’t long before cheese manufacturers decided to save consumers some trouble and flavor their cheese in the factory. They ran pimentos through a mechanical chopper then mixed them into Neufchatel curd along with a pinch of red pepper just before the cheese was molded. Commercially-made pimento cheese burst on the market around 1910 and spread quickly across the country. In March 1910, grocers in Minnesota were advertising “Pimiento Cheese—Something New,” and by April papers in North Dakota were running ads offering “Pimento cheese, something new, per jar . . . 20¢.” Within a year, pimento cheese was available as far west as Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico and down South in Alabama and South Carolina, too. Most of the manufacturers appear to have been based in New York or Wisconsin.

Read the rest of the story here:
http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/09/history-southern-food-pimento-cheese.html

 

 

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