by Alexandra Rasic
“You’re fully vaccinated? The CDC says you can now have friends and family over for dinner.” What a glorious headline!
As the number of people getting the COVID vaccine grows, more of us are getting ready to host that first gathering of special friends and family for a leisurely meal. What will you serve? Maybe you picked up some wicked new skills during the pandemic like bread making or pickling; maybe you’ve mastered some recipes using new kitchen tools like air fryers or pasta makers; or maybe you just want to make some of your tried and true recipes. Whatever you serve, it will be memorable.
Some of us like to go all out every now and then…like that one 4th of July I made a frosted cake where every slice (kind of) resembled an American flag.
Avid cooks and/or bakers like a good challenge, and we love to delight our guests. This phenomenon isn’t new, and it’s something we’ll touch on in our next program inspired by our From the Homestead Kitchen posts, happening this Mother’s Day, May 9, at 2 p.m. Something’s Brewing! Women and Tea in 20th Century Los Angeles will explore the many roles that “taking tea” filled in the lives of women, including socializing and entertaining. Throughout the program, my colleagues and I will talk about and sample historic recipes, and we invite you to join us. We’ll post the recipes on our website a couple of weeks before the event.
If I ask you to think about what a woman in the early 1900s might have served her friends while enjoying some tea, what comes to mind? My guess is that sandwiches might be near the top of the list. But not just any sandwiches, right? They would have to be something special. Just like today, hostesses were inundated with recipes, menu plans, and entertaining ideas everywhere they looked and listened: newspapers, books, magazines, and radio programs, just to name a few.
A booklet from the Homestead’s collection that will be featured in May’s program is Luncheon, Tea and Party Suggestions, compiled by the California Home Economics Association in 1927. (A recipe from this booklet recently inspired a post about the history of Chicken á la King.) In addition to familiar sandwiches like cream cheese and chicken and egg salad, there were two sandwich recipes that stopped me in my tracks: one was for a Salad Loaf, and the other for a Cake Sandwich Loaf. While both of these were new to me, they’ve been around for a long time. Go ahead and Google them. Bon Appétit, Betty Crocker, Food Network, Allrecipes, they’ve all got variations of these fetching offerings.
Let’s take a look at these two recipes starting with the Salad Loaf.
This four-layer sandwich made with a Pullman loaf (a bread that minimizes crust) contains two layers of canned crab mixed with pimientos, olives, and mayonnaise; and one layer of ground boiled ham mixed with dill pickles, minced hard boiled eggs, and mayo. Then it is “frosted” with a mixture of American cheese, cream, and ground pimientos, and then garnished with olives and pimientos. As many Salad Loaf recipes suggest, it can be served on a platter surrounded by crisp lettuce leaves and other vegetables like cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes.
The Cake Sandwich recipe is a bit more like a cake in that the “bread” you make for it contains sugar and quite a bit of peanut butter, but the fillings are savory. The first layer contains minced boiled ham mixed with pimientos and mayonnaise. Layer two is an egg salad made of eggs, dry mustard, paprika, butter, pimientos, salt, and lemon juice. And layer three is a flavor bomb of chopped sweet pickles, stuffed olives (I’m guessing stuffed with more pimientos!), and mayonnaise. The frosting for the Cake Sandwich is the same as for the Salad Loaf.
Can we stop here for a bit to talk about a little recipe ingredient that keeps popping up in spades in almost every resource we’ve looked at in preparation for this program? Pimientos…or pimentos as we know them in America today. Beautifully stated by Danilo Alfaro for The Spruce Eats, “Whether they’re stuffed in the olive in your martini glass, pureed in a cheese dip, or dried and turned into paprika, pimentos, which are sweet peppers most closely associated with Spain, are a triple treat. They work as a garnish, an ingredient, and a spice. How’s that for versatile?”
When I tried to pinpoint how and when pimientos were introduced in America, I kept coming across articles about the history of Pimento Cheese, a delicious spread so deeply associated with the South that it is sometimes referred to as the “caviar of the South,” or “Southern pâté.” (Spoiler alert! It’s actually a Northern creation.) The sheer volume of articles and recipes that popped up on the dish makes me think it is probably how pimientos are most used in cooking today. Then I found an article called “Pimientos in Georgia” by Paul W. Chapman published in The Georgia Review in the spring of 1949. Chapman told the story of S.D. Riegel who in the early 1900s solicited the help of his congressman to contact an American consul in Spain who shipped him a small package of pimiento seeds. Pimiento-style pepper seeds were available in the US prior to this, but Riegel and his sons Mark and George found the quality and flavor inferior to imported canned Spanish pimientos. In addition to bringing the pimiento to Georgia, Riegel and his sons established a new variety, called Perfection, and were the first to start commercial processing of the crop in the region.
Interestingly, Chapman noted that the Spanish sweet pepper the Riegels brought to Georgia was a plant native to the Americas, and that “it was really in a sense returning home. Christopher Columbus found pepper plants belonging to the Capsicum family on his first visit to the New World,” and when he returned home from his second voyage, he brought seeds from those American pepper plants with him. “To the Spaniards we are indebted for popularizing sweet peppers and for developing ways to process and use them,” wrote Chapman. “Spain shipped peppers to England as early as 1548; and in the same century, to India, and later to other parts of the world. But there seems to be no record of sweet peppers being grown or used in the United States until about the beginning of the twentieth century.”
Chapman also referred to the work of A.W. Bitting who wrote about the introduction of pimientos to California, the only other state that could rival Georgia in terms of growing pimientos at the time he was writing. In Appertizing, or The Art of Canning; Its History and Development, published in 1937, Bitting noted that pimientos were brought to California about the same time they were introduced to Georgia. He believed that Emilio Cyrus Ortega’s company in Los Angeles was the first to can pimientos in the US, but soon stopped as Ortega found canning chili peppers to be more lucrative. (This is the same Ortega brand we see on grocery shelves today, but the family no longer owns the company.) When Ortega died, his obituary in the Los Angeles Times on February 21, 1942, noted that he had established the first cannery of “Mexican chilis and pimientos” in 1903.
In looking at LA newspapers from the early 1900s, I found an article in the Los Angeles Times dated December 3, 1922, which noted that from one ounce of seed imported from Spain in 1908 a 1,200-acre farm now existed in Tustin, CA: “The seed of the Spanish pimiento was brought to Southern California by a man who is now an official in one of the largest Southland canneries [maybe Ortega?]. The seed was given to C. E. Utt, a grower in the Tustin district in a trial.” Journalist Ross H. Gast explained that “Americans declare the margin of profit in pimientos to be too small to justify them in attempting the crop and there are consequently few of them in the business.” So who does he say was doing the farming at that time? An influx of recent Japanese immigrants. “Something, apparently, must be done to place the industry on a firmer and more permanent foundation,” wrote Gast, “It is a long-maturing crop, and one that requires considerable capital to finance, so that the canneries advance funds to the growers, taking crop mortgages. This practice gives rise to considerable controversy…” Sadly, while American farmers frowned on this practice, Japanese farmers, limited by racist legislation like the California Alien Land Law of 1913, had little choice but to agree to these terms.
Gast also wrote about Georgia in his article, shedding light on another group whose labor options were limited: “The Southern California pimiento industry has a new rival which she should consider seriously. If Sherman should go marching through Georgia in 1922 he would probably be surprised to find that the negroes are forsaking the cotton fields to harvest the pimiento, which is being grown in some sections of that State. According to an article in one of the largest agricultural papers, over 6,000 acres of them were grown last year, and packed in a growers’ co-operative cannery.” So here in greater Los Angeles, the work was undertaken by the Japanese, and in Georgia, by Black individuals looking to sustain themselves in the Jim Crow South.
By October 1928, the Los Angeles Times reported that production in Southern California increased to 4,500 acres, with 3,500 in Orange County alone. “It is refreshing to know that here is a crop which is not being overdone,” wrote Iva M. McFadden. “Canneries are trying to increase production because demand for pimientos is always brisk.” He noted that the Del Monte cannery in Santa Ana would “probably expand its capacity if housewives continue to favor the enticing pimiento.” And favor it they did, as we’ve seen in cook books and newspaper articles of the day highlighting numerous recipes containing the ingredient.
“There was a time when cooks knew nothing of that colorful and spicy product, canned ripe pimiento. But now, all sorts of recipes demand its presence to give an exact piquancy of flavor or a bright touch of color to the menu.”
Iva M. McFadden, Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1928
The time that consumers were able to easily buy canned pimientos coincided with the rise in popularity of processed foods like cream cheese. Soon recipes bringing them together were featured in magazines and newspapers all over the country. Early on, we see that a little consumer education had to take place, maybe because some saw the peppers as an exotic ingredient they were not entirely sure how to use. Because their flavor was so mild and they added a burst of color to a recipe, and stood out as a garnish, it’s easy to see how they became so popular once they became readily available. Pimientos were also affordable, and grocery store owners regularly advertised the product.
But let’s get back to entertaining, shall we…
The Salad Loaf and Cake Sandwich recipes took sandwiches to a whole new level. They were often described as “new” and “novel,” and as such, they enticed hostesses who were looking to serve something different and memorable. Two days apart, I found two articles in women’s sections of the Pomona Bulletin and the San Pedro Daily Pilot from 1927 pitching the same “not common” Salad Loaf recipe (sadly, sans pimientos!) in almost the exact same way to a hostess burdened with the task of successfully entertaining a group of friends or her club. One article explained that Washington’s birthday gives her an excuse to decorate her house in patriotic colors and serve the Salad Loaf as the star of the meal, while the other suggests that St. Patrick’s day gives her an excuse to decorate her house in “many lovely colors” serving the same Salad Loaf as the entrée. So insert a holiday, change a few colors in your decorations, and you’re good to go year-round!
Here are some additional examples of Sandwich Loaf recipes featuring pimientos in print:
So did I make our historic Salad Loaf and Cake Sandwich recipes? Not yet!
Tune in to our program on May 9th to see how they turn out. I’ll have prepared both recipes, chock-full of pimientos, to taste with my colleagues. In the meantime, if you have memories of any show-stopping sandwiches or pimientos, we’d love to hear them!