Food Research: Taste NC
In 2022 the PWR class conducted in depth research on the topics of pimento cheese and biscuits. The goal for this research was to find out the importance of the two foods within the state of North Carolina and if they are connected to the title of "southern foods".
History of Biscuits in North Carolina
What is southern food? You may think of biscuits, grits, Coca-Cola, fried chicken, or hush puppies. Those answers would make you correct. These foods are classified as typically southern but what exactly makes them a part of the southern food scene? Our research will focus on understanding why a biscuit is considered a part of the southern food landscape. We suggest biscuits are a part of the southern identity and culture because of its ingredients and historical value. Specifically, in North Carolina, we argue because Elon students are not geographically from the south therefore biscuits are not a part of their daily lives; rather, their relationship with biscuits is through chain food places like Biscuitville or Bojangles.
Biscuits as we know them originated in the 19th century as the country began to improve flour mills to produce better, inexpensive flour. As a result, flour became more accessible to people of all economic classes. Thus, the biscuit became more popular because it was hardy, versatile, and relatively inexpensive. Normally paired with gravy, this meal gave the need nutrients and flavor needed to sustain a day's hard work.
In North Carolina, the biscuit is integral to the daily palette just like a bagel is to people in New York City. Its history in North Carolina can be traced all the way back to early European settlers in the New World. Because it was made from ground wheat, water, and some sort of gravy provided sustenance for the plagiarism that lacked accessibility to kitchens. The next major event was the Appalachian Bread Wars. A socioeconomic war that separated the poor from the privileged. The diet of that time lacked key nutrients due to high inflation leaving those who were in poverty unable to afford flour, the key ingredient for biscuits. Because of this imbalance, many people began to get sick. Reformers decided to feed them beaten biscuits and saw an improvement in health so they decided to invest more in the flour sector. Wheat is key for flour and it grew best in the South. More wheat, and more flour, equates to the normalization of biscuits into southern food identity. Later baking powder and soda became commercially available, reshaping the beaten biscuit into the modern biscuit we still eat today.
Biscuit Survey Analysis
Having reviewed the data that we collected from our sample groups, our initial research into biscuits and what they reveal about North Carolina’s regional cultures has created more insights into the data gathering process rather than anything about biscuits.
Simply put: the main takeaway from this study is that our survey itself is a good first draft. What can be taken from the answers that people have submitted to us, however, should hold little weight in answering our overarching questions about biscuits.
There are two reasons behind this conclusion. First, only 35 of our 135 participants are from the state of North Carolina. Many are from states north of Maryland. To put this ratio in a percentage rate, only 26% of our participants were from the state that this survey concerns. By having an overwhelming majority of our sample participants from different states, we believe that any information we’ve acquired from this survey will not accurately reflect anything about the people of North Carolina. To receive more insightful information that could help our research, it is advised that our future sample group is almost entirely from the state of North Carolina.
In building off of our first point, the second point is that we were not specific enough in asking our participants about where they’re from. Our demographic location question simply did not dig deep enough. The survey only asked its users about the state they’re from. It did not ask what city they originated from. Not knowing this information greatly limits what we can conclude about the sub-regions of North Carolina through biscuits. With our current survey, it would be impossible to tell the difference between the responses of a North Carolina participant from Manteo and a North Carolina participant from Murphy. Our current survey simply lumps all North Carolinians together. What our future survey should do is ask participants to write what city they’re from in addition to their state.
In summary, the survey that we sent to our sample groups was a great beta test survey that will help us further understand how to frame our questions and how to best reach the peoples and communities of North Carolina.
History of Pimento Cheese
While often described strictly as a “southern food,” the origins of pimento cheese aren’t as “southern” as you may think. This concoction of cheddar cheese, pimento peppers, and mayonnaise actually originated in New York. While the recipe began to circulate among farmers in the 1870s, pimento cheese was not being commercially made and sold until 1910. It was frequently used as a sandwich spread, and also as a dip for chips and crackers.
The reason that pimento cheese is known as a “southern food” is because of the way that the dish became commercial. Popular brands selling pimento cheese had the dish manufactured in the south because it was cheaper. Because of this, pimento cheese slowly began to be recognized as a staple of the South and shifted away from its association with New York.
Today, the most popular brands of pimento cheese across the country are Pawleys Island Specialty Foods’ Palmetto Cheese Spread, Duke Pimento Cheese, Ruth’s Pimento Cheese Spread, and Di Prato’s Pimento Cheese.
Pimento cheese can be a controversial food; you either love it, you hate it, or you’ve never heard of it. The goal of our research was to (1) determine whether the home state state/region and the age of an individual affects whether a person has heard of and enjoys pimento cheese, and (2) determine whether pimento cheese is strictly a “southern food.”
To answer these primary questions, our team created a survey as both a Google Form and hard copy. The survey was distributed at a local farmer’s market, the Pumpkin Festival, and through group messages with peers.
Pimento Cheese Data Analysis
Reviewing the data gathered from our survey offered some very valuable insights regarding our questions. Right off the bat, question 1, “Have you heard of pimento cheese?” revealed surprising results; 74% of survey participants said that they had heard of pimento cheese before. This indicates that, regardless of geographical location, the majority of our nation’s citizens are familiar with pimento cheese, suggesting that it maintains prominent cultural significance in America. While a large proportion of survey respondents were familiar with the food, more than a quarter of participants–26% to be exact–revealed that they had never heard of pimento cheese before; these participants who were unfamiliar with pimento cheese tended to be from Northern American states.
Regarding demographic information, we asked participants which of the 50 states they are from and their age range. When looking at participants’ geographical information, the largest majority of participants–about 29.8% of survey takers–revealed that they were from Georgia. Meanwhile, the next largest percentage–11.3% to be exact–revealed that they were from “other” locations; this suggested that a substantial portion of participants were either from Washington DC, which was not included as a state in our survey, or from international locations. The third largest percentage–8.8% of survey takers–was composed of participants from North Carolina. We can conclude, by adding the data of Georgia and North Carolina together, that a substantial portion of survey participants–almost 40%–were from the American South. Regarding age demographics, the largest group–66.1%–revealed that they were in the 18-24 age range. Meanwhile, 19.3% revealed that they were in the 35-44 age range. The third highest percentage (9%) revealed that they were in the age range of 45-54. These results from the age demographic question are relatively unsurprising; while our survey was distributed electronically to various locations in American, the majority of surveys were conducted at Elon University’s campus in North Carolina.
In response to question 4, “Do you like pimento cheese?”, the majority (38.5%) of survey takers revealed that they were “indifferent” to it. Meanwhile, the rest of the results were rather scattered across the spectrum. These varied results suggest that pimento cheese is a relatively divisive food item and one that, perhaps, necessitates an acquired taste.
“Question 5: Do you eat pimento cheese regularly in your family home?” revealed more consistent results, with approximately 87.6% of survey takers indicating that they did not eat pimento cheese regularly in their family homes and only 12.4% of respondents indicating that they did. Likewise, the follow-up question: “Question 6: Did you grow up eating pimento cheese, or did you first try it during adulthood?” revealed that 62.8% of respondents first tried pimento cheese during adulthood, while 37.2% of respondents had grown up eating it. We were surprised to learn that most consumers of pimento cheese were not introduced to it in the home and did not consume it primarily in the home; we initially hypothesized that pimento cheese was a food item that had strong generational roots and was primarily passed down within family homes.
Question #7: “Where were you first introduced to pimento cheese?” yielded a variety of answers; however, the most common responses were: 1. At home (48.9%) and then 2. At school (21.1%). With that said, many other respondents indicated that they had been introduced to it at church, parties, through friends, etc. The responses to question 7 are surprising when considering the responses to questions 5 and 6, which revealed that most participants do not eat pimento cheese regularly and were not introduced to pimento cheese in childhood. To logically solve this inconsistency, we can infer that a significant number of participants tried pimento cheese at home in adulthood and promptly discontinued the consumption of pimento cheese.
Next, Question 8. “How frequently do you consume pimento cheese?” targeted the frequency of pimento cheese consumption. Results indicated that the largest majority of respondents (62.2%) rarely consume it (once a year), meanwhile 27.6% of respondents indicated that they infrequently consumed it (every few months). Only 8% of respondents indicated that they ate pimento cheese once a month. These results support the hypothesis that pimento cheese necessitates acquired taste; as most participants rarely or infrequently consumed pimento cheese, we can infer that its rich flavor profile and interesting texture dissuade participants from consuming it frequently or considering it a staple food item.
In regard to what accompaniments are usually eaten with pimento cheese, the largest percentage (60.8%) indicated that they consumed pimento cheese with crackers. The next largest percentage indicated that they ate it as a sandwich spread. Interestingly, almost a quarter of participants (22%) stated that they enjoyed pimento cheese without any accompaniments and preferred the food plain. Chips were also a relatively popular option, with 20.7% of participants favoring them as an accompaniment.
Moreover, in regard to question 10 regarding brand loyalty, 70.7% of survey respondents indicated that they had no preference on brand loyalty, meanwhile 18.7% of respondents said they were loyal to multiple brands. Likewise, the results for question 11 on what brand is preferred indicated similar results, as 71.7% of respondents answered “N/A” to this particular question. These results support our finding that almost 40% of respondents are “indifferent” to pimento cheese; this indifference is apparent within respondents' lack of brand loyalty. Relatively few have strong feelings about the pimento cheese they purchase.
Finally, the last question (Question 12) asked if respondents would categorize pimento cheese as a “strictly Southern food”. These results were rather scattered as well, however, 44% of respondents (the largest majority) said they were rather “neutral” to this statement and 30.6% of respondents said they agreed. The majority consensus is, then, that pimento cheese has no cultural significance as a food. However, if pimento cheese were considered a culturally significant food, it would be culturally significant to the American South, as ____% of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that pimento cheese is inherently southern in nature.
In short, a quarter of the people that were interviewed had never heard of pimento cheese. This also resulted in the rest of their questions that would have been answered being discontinued. The location that the majority of the respondents were from was Georgia at just under 30 percent, and almost three-fourths of the respondents were between the ages of 18-24. As far as whether or not the respondents liked pimento cheese or not, the majority were indifferent, just under 40 percent. When it came down to how often the respondents ate pimento cheese, over 85 percent said that they did not eat it regularly in their family home. This translates to the fact that over half of the respondents tried pimento cheese for the first time in their adulthood. At the same time, just under half of the respondents were introduced to pimento cheese at home. Out of those who had tried pimento cheese before, just over 60 percent rarely eat it at an estimate of about once a year. As far as accompaniments are concerned, no matter how many options were checked, the responses reflected that participants ate pimento cheese with crackers the most, and most of the respondents did not have a preference as to what brand of pimento cheese they consume. These numbers make sense, because just over 70 percent of the respondents did not have a favorite pimento cheese brand. Lastly, out of all of the respondents, just under half were neutral when it came to whether or not they agreed with pimento cheese being described as “southern food”. In conclusion, whether the age bracket and home states of the participants were a factor in the results, the reputation of pimento cheese as a cultural staple may not be as strong as previously thought. But, its reputation as a southern food still remains.
Link to google forms survey: https://forms.gle/8veWmKwmG25tXe997