A Closer Look at the Pimento, an Unsung Hero of the Pepper Kingdom
Whether jammed into an olive floating in a martini or mixed in with a cheesy dip on a charcuterie board, pimento is the kind of thing you may have seen before without really knowing what it is ... For those who might not know any better, all the red stuff in the center might as well be a part of the olive itself. Though that might represent how most of us encounter them, the mighty pimento (or pimiento) has a much more interesting history than you might expect.
So what is a pimento?
The pimento isn't just "the red part at the center of an olive," but a pepper in its own right. It's among the mildest members of the pepper kingdom, with a rating on the Scoville scale between 100 and 500 heat units. In fact, the relative lack of heat and subtle sweetness of this small, red pepper is why the pimento is often also known as a cherry pepper.
How did the pimento get its name?
The etymology of what English speakers consider a "pimento" or "pimiento" is an interesting case. The object referred to by the word "pimento" has shifted over time, and its meaning across English and Spanish (as well as Portuguese) remains different today.
Derived from the latin pigmentum meaning "pigment," both the Spanish "pimiento" and Portuguese "pimento" were once names for the bell pepper. Over time, the definition of those words were broadened in each of their respective languages such that "pimento" and "pimiento" are now used as catch-all terms for referring to any pepper among those who speak these Iberian languages.
In English, what we mean by "pimento" today would surely confuse an American chef from the 19th century. Back then, "pimento" referred to allspice, the dried unripe berries from the Pimenta dioica. According to author Robert Moss's writing on the subject, recipes that referred to "sweet Spanish peppers'" first started to appear in the 1880s and 1890s. Around then, larger-scale manufacturers began importing, canning, and selling this particular pepper, which bore the Spanish "pimiento". Over time, the second "i" disappeared, and the new definition with the Portuguese spelling started to catch on by the beginning of the 20th century. Thus, what was once the Spanish word for every pepper came to refer to a single pepper somewhere along its journey across the Atlantic.
Does this have anything to do with Spanish paprika?
Well, yes and no. Spanish paprika, differentiated from its Hungarian counterpart because it's smoked over an oak fire, is known as pimentón, and is available in a few different varieties. Paprika (Spanish or otherwise) need not be made from the pimento pepper, though it is sometimes used at times when a sweeter paprika is preferred to something spicy.
So how did pimento-stuffed olives become a thing?
Though it's hard to mark the beginning of many culinary traditions with an exact date, there's reason to believe that olives have been stuffed with pimento since the 18th century, with the Provence area of France taking credit. The strong salty, briny, bitter taste of an olive can pack a wallop, and counterposing it with something mild and sweet is a worthwhile way to introduce a sense of balance.
While the tradition has endured, the process of getting pimento into an olive was pretty labor-intensive until about 50 years ago, with most of the work done by hand. It wasn't until 1962 that a Seville, Spain-based company called Sadrym successfully developed a piece of automatic olive-stuffing equipment, and the process got quite a bit faster.
These days, the pimento you find in an olive is likely to be diced or mashed to facilitate more efficient stuffing. The process involves making an escape hole for the pit, pushing it out at the other end, and then injecting a bit of that pimento concoction into the empty space left behind.
The Pimento's Unlikely Journey into Southern American Cuisine
Beyond olives, pimento plays a key, almost indispensable role in Southern cuisine as the core ingredient driving pimento cheese. Though it's sometimes referred to as "Carolina Caviar" or the "paté of the South," this delightful combination of cheese, mayonnaise, wasn't initially known as a Southern staple. The idea for the dip seems to have evolved over the early decades of the 20th century, back when canned vegetables like pimento were much more of a sign of status than they are today. By the 1930s, however, Kraft leaned into the idea of pimento cheese as a convenient (tasty) way to upsell their cream cheese.
Get the Recipe: Southern Pimento Cheese
Even then, though, pimento cheese didn't develop its Southern association. So what gives? As Moss notes, one theory claims it has something to do with Georgia's status as the pimento growing epicenter in the US, though the Peach State's pimento production peaked by 1938, but a healthy percentage of those peppers were canned and shipped all over the country. Whatever the reason, pimento cheese is still inextricably linked to Southern cuisine — even if we have what was once a Spanish pepper to thank for it.
So next time you find yourself at a fancy Southern cocktail party, sipping on a martini in between bites of a cracker slathered in pimento cheese, think fondly of that small, sweet pepper and all it's done for us. Not only that, but now you have a mildly interesting party anecdote about the origin of "pimento" at your disposal. You're welcome.