6 months ago
There’s only one big cheese at The Masters — and it has nothing to do with who wins the green jacket.
As much of a piece of the fabric of the annual golf tournament as Amen Corner, Magnolia Lane or skipping balls on 16, the $1.50 pimento cheese sandwich is a staple at Augusta National each April and has been for as long as almost anyone can remember.
It hasn’t always been $1.50 ($3 if you tack on chips and a sweet tea), but it’s believed the Southern-style cheese wedge may have debuted at the Masters sometime in the late ‘40s when husband-and-wife team Hodges and Ola Herndon brought sandwiches they’d made in their nearby kitchen to the course and sold them to pimento-craving patrons for a quarter apiece.
The sandwich — which is now made fresh daily onsite and comes wrapped in fairway-green plastic bags — may seem like an odd fit for those of us who grew up above the Mason-Dixon line. However, Deana Tanner Bibb, the batch maker at Proper Pepper Pimento Cheese which is located about an hour away from Augusta in Sandersville, Georgia, told RealClearLife it’s a natural fit.
“It’s definitely a regional food that got its start in Georgia and the Carolinas at textile mills when you needed a quick and inexpensive way to feed the workers that was packed with protein.” Bibb said. “Over the years it’s become a staple item year-round in southern refrigerators, but it’s really, really enjoyed in the spring and summer months.”
Given that, perhaps it was a tap-in that Hodges and Ola went with pimento over peanut butter and jelly.
Unfortunately for the Herndons, as the Masters grew, so did the hunger for “Carolina Caviar,” and a caterer named Nick Rangos took over sandwich-making duties for The Masters in the mid-1950s to meet that demand. Rangos and his secret recipe (which he took to the grave) were a Masters’ mainstay for more than four decades before Augusta National pivoted again and began using Augusta restaurant chain Wife Saver in 1998.
Whether Rangos was making them or not, guests were already hooked on the sandwiches.
“The Masters is a tournament built around tradition and the pimento cheese sandwich is just that,” Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau marketing manager told Keaton Thurmond told RCL. “Guests’ fathers and grandfathers ate the same sandwich on the course and they still want to relive that experience as it’s been for generations.”
Once he took over the business, Wife Saver franchise owner Ted Godfrey tried to replicate Rangos’ recipe with little success. “The cheese was a distinct cheese,” Godfrey previously told ESPN. “It was more orange than most cheeses. I knew I didn’t have the right cheese. We had cheeses and cheeses and cheeses. I can’t tell you how many 35-dollar cases of cheese we’d been through.”
After much trial and error, Godfrey was eventually able to find the missing ingredient to add to simple blend of cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos in order to replicate Rangos’ signature sandwich. That victory wasn’t enough to keep him at the course for long and, in 2013, Godfrey was let go by the Masters as Augusta National brought all its catering services in-house.
After he was replaced, there was a bad taste left in Augusta. Nevertheless, like his pimento predecessor, Godfrey refused to spill the beans about the secret ingredient in what came to be known as “PimentoGate.”
“The following year the sandwiches tasted a bit off,” Cooper Samuels, a University of Georgia grad who’s been making an annual trip to Augusta since first attending The Masters in 2004, told RCL.“People noticed – which is kind of hilarious. They’ve since corrected the recipe, but it’s still not as good as when I first started going to the tournament.”
So, any guesses as to what that missing secret ingredient might have been?
“We won’t be able to assist at this time,” Augusta National Golf Club director of communications Steve Ethun said via email when reached for comment by RCL.
“Oh gosh no,” Bibb said. “That would be highly secretive. I think the pimento cheese at The Masters is a pretty simple, classic recipe and not doctored-up with a lot of extras. But I have no idea how they make theirs.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter whether the club’s in-house chefs ever find the actual missing ingredient, as the supply of soft-yet-never-soggy sandwiches still sells out most days. And that’ll probably be the case no matter who is slapping homemade pimento between two slices of white bread.
“I find it endearing that so many visitors with experienced palettes look forward to such a simple, southern staple served in a green baggie for 51 weeks out of the year until they make it back to Augusta,” Thurmond said.
In a way, the not-so-secret ingredient is Real Estate 101: Price and location, location, location.
“There’s nothing to it really. It tastes so damn good because it’s $1.50 and that place is magical,” Samuels said. “Everything on the grounds at Augusta National tastes better and you can see it in the faces of the patrons as they take their first bites. It’s an incredible experience and I hope everyone on earth gets an opportunity to go to The Masters once in their lifetime.”