Episode 22: Peaches, Pimentos, and Myths of Innovation

The challenge of transforming regional economies through technological innovation is at the heart of current discussions about science and industrial policy—not to mention the CHIPs and Science Act itself. To think about what regional transformation means, it’s worth revisiting the story of how a network of “fruit men” used the peach, and later the pimento, to change the South after the Civil War. Starting with a biotechnological invention—a shippable peach named the Elberta—this group built railroads, designed shipping methods, educated farmers, and eventually built factories that transformed the landscape and economy of the region. But this story isn’t only about tangible actions: the network used powerful storytelling and ideology to accomplish this revolution. 

On this episode, host Lisa Margonelli talks with historian and journalist Cynthia Greenlee about the role of technological innovation, storytelling, and myth in regional transformation. They also discuss how the peach paved the way for the invention of the pimento pepper—now part of a beloved regional cheese spread—and harnessed cultural as well as technological forces.

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Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University.

The fact that you can buy a peach anywhere across the country is a marvel of biotechnology, innovation, and infrastructure, but we often don’t think of food as revolutionary. To understand how this kind of total technological transformation happened, today we’re going to look at the history of the peach. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues. I’m joined by historian, writer, and editor Dr. Cynthia Greenlee. Cynthia wrote an amazing piece for Issues called “Reinventing the Peach, the Pimento, and Regional Identity.” I’m so excited to talk to her on this episode. Cynthia, welcome.

Cynthia Greenlee: Thank you, so glad to be here.

Margonelli: Right now, the whole country is involved in this discussion over microchips for computers, and we’re talking about networks, supply chains, regional transformation, global competitiveness, all of this sort of stuff, and it’s all very super-duper twenty-first century. But the story that you told, is from the 1870s, and it’s about cutting-edge biotech, and it’s about peaches and pimentos. It’s just such a fascinating story of innovation, so welcome.

Greenlee: Thank you. I just love thinking about innovation in food and we’re all embroiled in thinking about supply chains more than I think we ever could have predicted three years ago. I was like, how do we get the things we eat, but more specifically, how do we breathe the things we eat? I’m always interested in thinking about the origins of our food system, and I think the 1870s is probably one of the best times to look at it, because we were a newly reunified nation after the Civil War, and certain things are possible that weren’t possible before. It’s a sweet spot, no pun intended, for agricultural innovation, whether that is actually fruit, or whether it’s equipment that people used to handle the fruit, and get it from place to place.

Margonelli: What do you mean when you say a sweet spot?

Greenlee: I love the 1870s, but really the 1880s is my jam. It’s this decade where so many of the things we use today come into being. For instance, the railroads and modern transportation. I really feel like it’s traced back to that decade.

Margonelli: Can I just interject? The railroads had come about 1820s or something, but they’re suddenly mature in the 1880s? It’s almost like the Internet now compared to the Internet in the ’90s.

Greenlee: Yeah, they come of age and really become a larger national network, and places that weren’t connected before are now connected. Again, some of that is because of the Civil War, and some of the Civil War destroyed infrastructure. Think about Sherman burning parts of the South and cutting off some parts of the South from others. But also, we’re now connecting places, whether we’re talking about rural southwest Georgia, which was largely unrailroaded, or the railroads only went to certain places and cities, or we’re now thinking about reconnecting the South, and reconnecting it to the north. There’s a whole lot of speculation, and in fact a lot of the Governors and leaders of states, were investors or owners in railroads. There is an unseemly collaboration, and we could say corruption sometimes, in the fact that the people who are running the states are very often very personally invested in expanding the railroads and big business.

Margonelli: Wow, okay. Here’s where we’re headed, we’re headed straight into the railroads, but we’re going to get there by way of the peach. There’s a story that’s told about the invention of the peach and the Elberta. Can you tell me what that is?

Greenlee: Sure. The main character, as it were, of the story, is a man named Samuel Rumph, who is in Georgia. There’s a story about him, that he was a young boy and his father dies early, and he has a mother who’s overwhelmed by all of her children, and she sends him to stay with his grandparents. They were workaday people, but he becomes very obsessed with peaches, fruits, and botanicals, but it’s really the peach that gets him. He decides he wants to breed a better peach, because even now as we think of Georgia and the Georgia peach, even though South Carolina is number one in peach production, let’s just make that clear. The peach wasn’t what it is now, the peach was not a fruit that they exported around the country. The peach was also considered something you fed to the pigs and it was hard to move peaches. I mean, it’s hard to move them now, right?

He experimented with this, supposedly, as a teenager over and over again, until he arrived at this beautiful, handsome, yellow peach called the Elberta, which was sweet but also could be shipped easily. It became the peach that really changed the landscape of Marshallville and towns around Georgia, and it’s largely the peach that made Georgia the peach state. He said he named it after his wife, that was her middle name, and so the Elberta was famously known for being as beautiful as the South’s most beautiful debutants.

Margonelli: It sort of got locked up in these various cultural stories, that then perpetuated the story of the peach, because it’s not a given that you compare peaches to women.

Greenlee: No, it’s not. They blush, right? Supposedly, I guess if you’re going to look at any fruit that might be a woman, a peach might be it, but then we think of pear shaped, apple, I don’t know. We could go a lot of different ways with it. This peach becomes caught up in a really big cultural story and that’s the heart of my story, which is that southern fruit growers like Samuel Rumph are really determined to make a name for themselves, and not just names for themselves as individual fruit breeders and commercial nursery owners, but for the South itself. Coming off of the Civil War where there’s a narrative of the lost cause, where people say that the South was a victim, it is aggrieved, and the South must rise again.

They have a commercial version of this, which is that the northern nurserymen have had all the advantages of infrastructure, they also had the advantages of infrastructure that was not destroyed or damaged by war, but that we, as southern fruit men, can change this industry, and we can also use our peaches or our pimentos to help the South become this commercial business juggernaut that it was not before. And even more than that, we can sell our fruit around the nation, and we can sell it to people in the north, and we can sell it to people in cities, because this is the time where Americans are starting to move to cities, and this is becoming a much less agrarian nation. They’re saying we can get these fruits to people in the city, because they have been isolated from the bounty of our fields and our oysters as they move to other places.

Margonelli: There’s this underlying ideology among the guys you call the southern fruit men and it’s so interesting, because that is oftentimes not what gets talked about, about innovation. We talk about inputs of money, we talk about inputs of raw materials, we talk about labor, we talk about all these different inputs, but we don’t necessarily talk about the ideology. In here, what is it that the ideology helped them accomplish? Once you have a peach on a tree in Georgia, the road to actually selling it in New York is pretty long.

Greenlee: Yeah. We talked about the technological input, a better railroad, and sometimes people talk about innovation as if it is a mindset. I think it is, but I think sometimes we get very caught up in the idea of it being an individual mindset. I think what was really clear in the story of Samuel Rumph, and the men and women who joined him, in these nineteenth-century century horticultural societies, was that they had an idea that together, that they could make better fruit. Many of them were inventors, not just of the fruit but also of ways to ship it, but that they were trying to make a new South. In this case, the new south that they’re trying to create is one that is prosperous, industrious, and also not dependent on slavery. We can become a place where people process fruit, where we grow it, where we sell it, and that fruit is one way for the South to no longer be the redheaded stepchild of the nation.

Margonelli: These networks of people then had to figure out how to ship the fruit, they had to figure out how to bust into these markets up north, they had to figure out how to relay the rail tracks to get from one place to another. One of the things that you bring out in the story, is that they did it through storytelling. This was done through telling these narratives again and again, and the Samuel Rumph story of the peach is one of those narratives.

Greenlee: Yeah. I think one of the important parts of building a business is marketing, or if we’re going to think beyond marketing, the establishment of myth. Samuel Rumph’s story is really a supposedly quintessential American story, rags to riches, when in fact his family was not particularly poor, they owned plantations and land, and were not particularly ravaged by the Civil War. But the story is important, because it’s about struggle, it’s about a young man who struggles against the odds, an industry that’s not really a huge industry, but also about the expectations of his neighbors. People supposedly thought that he was a little bit unhinged, because he was so focused on this fruit. But also struggling against the idea that southerners could not grow beautiful fruit on a large scale, and could not import it. Southerners grouped together not just to figure out who breeds the best peach, but to start telling other people, doing a little bit of chest beating as it were, that our peaches are the best.

You start seeing the Elberta being advertised around the country, it goes to World Fairs where there are Georgia pavilions, where Georgia natives are extolling the virtues of the Elberta, again comparing her to a woman, her beauty, and she’s buxom. They’re creating this mythology that the Georgia peach is the best simply by saying it, but they also have something other people don’t have in the beginning, which is that Samuel Rumph himself is a person who has built refrigerated cars, and also who has developed a certain crate where they can ship these things. They have a little bit of a good argument to say that, “We’re doing things in Georgia that you all aren’t doing, and you want to be like us, right?”

Even though we can argue about whether or not their Georgia peaches tasted better than anyone else’s, but after a certain time they keep telling people, they put themselves in places where peach salesmen are going to be, and they’re traveling to New York, and trying to get investors. They’re trying to convince people that the Georgia peach is the one you want to have, particularly the Elberta peach, and maybe you can get a piece of this business while it’s still starting, but it takes off really quickly.

Margonelli: It’s so interesting too, because long before Bitcoin, they were looking for investors, and they’re using a myth to get the investment, as well as to sell the product. It’s a classic story of technology and the marketing of the myth.

Greenlee: I feel like there’s a little bit of P.T. Barnum showmanship going on here in the industry, but they’re able to deliver enough that people really start to believe, or at least start to buy the Georgia peach.

Margonelli: The other myth that gets changed in the story, or gets challenged in the story, is of private investment versus government, because something happens in the midst of Samuel Rumph’s story, where you start getting more government investment in this agricultural revolution that’s going on.

Greenlee: Yeah, the roots of this story are twofold, Lisa. Part of it is that, I’m from North Carolina, or at least my father’s family is from North Carolina, my mother’s family is from South Carolina. We used to travel to go to my grandmother’s house and we would travel the peach highway, Highway 220, the old one going from North Carolina to coastal South Carolina. It’s peach country; peach ice cream, we would stop at fruit stands every couple of miles and see the peaches, and they would be different peaches. I became really interested in the peach, but the thing that I was really interested in, is understanding where all these peaches came from. Yes, there was some natural diversity, but many of the peaches that we saw, were peaches that came out of peach labs.

There are universities that have peach labs, some very famous ones like at Clemson University, there is a peach lab at North Carolina State University. Why did universities, particularly state universities, or those that had very big ag schools, or initiative, why did they get interested in doing the peach? What really happens is, the establishment of these places called rural experiment centers or stations. They were literally publicly funded farms where people would figure out, okay, can we breed a new peanut? Or how do we avoid this particular pest eating our collards? Those sites became hubs for innovation and some of those people, like Samuel Rumph and his colleagues, had relationships with these experiment centers.

There is a very permeable line between these previously private investors and fruit breeders. They’re exchanging information in all of these circles, including with people in the rural experiment centers, and sometimes those people are the same people, as in the case with the pimento. That some of the pimento development to get a beautiful pimento with less tough skin, is happening because industry folks are actually working in the center.

Margonelli: Let’s go to the pimento. I guess it’s around 1910, sometime in that zone, the pimento comes up. What’s kind of wild is, as you point out, is the peach created a template for biotech innovation and industrial innovation in the South. That template was that a fruit can solve problems if it’s properly designed, it can invent a new world. Tell us a story of the pimento.

Greenlee: The pimento, it’s one of these stories that surprises people. If we think about pimento cheese, like one of the preeminent products of the Southern larder, we think the pimento is southern. Well, actually, not so much. The pimento as we know it really came from Spain and it was a luxury product, not a thing you have in a plastic tub in your refrigerator, and you spread it on white bread for a quick lunch. The pimento seeds are imported and a family starts really growing them, and trying to figure out, “How do we use these pimentos?”

Americans have to be taught what to do with the pimentos, because it’s not something that was a really common household item in your pantry. People are trying to figure out how to grow it, what to do with it, but also what to do with its tough skin. Because if you wanted those little red slivers, or cubes, that you see in the jars, it takes you a while to get to those things. You have to burn off that really tough outer skin, and there really wasn’t a great process for that. There’s a family, also in Georgia, the Regal family, and the son works at one of the rural experiment centers, but the father and son breed a more perfect pimento, one that they think yields more flesh and they can come up with a method to burn off those skins.

They do that and they make that into a machine. Like Samuel Rumph did the refrigerated cars to ship his peaches, they actually created a process to make the pimento much more accessible, to get rid of that tough skin that hid the flesh. Once they had a process, once they had machinery to do that, they built factories that could process the pimento on a scale that had never been seen before in the United States, not even in California, which had been the number one state processing pimentos before Georgia.

Pimentos are so processed in Georgia, that people start saying that Georgia shouldn’t be the peach state, that Georgia should be the pimento state. Actually, some of the plants processed both peaches and pimentos, so they really are. The peach did it first, it established a template for the pimento, but those two products together are products that the agriculturalists of Georgia, and state politicians say, “Maybe this is a way that we can replace cotton.” Because cotton, it’s not dying, but there was a great boll weevil invasion that devastated the crop. Farmers are looking for something that is not cotton and hopefully something that doesn’t deplete the soil like cotton. They’re thinking maybe this pimento thing could be it.

Margonelli: How do peaches and pimento become part of the Georgia …? These are very industrial, as you point out in the article. Everything about this is industrial, even the pimento farmers got packages of thousands of pimento seedlings that had to be put into the ground immediately with a special process. But then, this all becomes part of this new mythology of the flavor of Georgia. A pimento becomes a gracious thing to put on your table.

Greenlee: Yeah, it’s really interesting and it’s a process that, it’s both a business process, but it’s a cultural one. It’s where they merge, right? You see county extension agents doing workshops for girls about how to cook with pimento, or there are canning clubs. Just like 4-H evolved out of canning clubs, there were pimento clubs that canned, and they canned for local and home consumption, but they also donated their canning to groceries, and to community groups. There was a whole process of getting people to understand the pimento and that also meant we’re going to show beautiful newspaper advertisements of it. At a certain point that the pimento comes along later, there are beautiful color images of it in grocery store ads, because the pimento is red, and so you start seeing it pop up in cookbooks.

There’s a wholesale effort on the part of the pimento industry to really get people to try this thing, and then to say, “Actually, yeah, it’s kind of new, but we do it better than anybody, so it’s ours.” There’s community ownership and there are whole communities, like Pomona, around the Pomona plants in Griffin, Georgia, that become geared to this industry, and then they add on these other cultural accoutrements, like you can become the Pimento Queen. How do you build out an industry? Yes, you build it from infrastructure. Yes, you build it from process. Yes, you build it from machinery and labor practices. But you also have to teach people how to use this thing and get them to feel some ownership of it, and that’s what they did by marketing, also, directly to women in the home, and girls.

Margonelli: That’s such an amazing story. It’s almost like the stories that we tell about innovation tend to be so flat. If you just left the story of the peach at Samuel Rumph spent all this time out in the fields as a poor orphan child reinventing the peach, you miss the whole story of how it became a way of life, and a whole means of educating farmers in the South, and then educating homemakers, and women. It’s really a cultural revolution.

Greenlee: It is a cultural revolution and you can take it a bit further, too. If I’m thinking about on a culinary level, the advent of convenient foods and things in jarred mayonnaise in grocery stores, and mayonnaise is important to pimento cheese. You see mill workers as the textile industry grows around the South, you see mill workers having them eat quick sandwiches, very often pimento cheese. You have a work force that is processing pimento, you have a workforce that recognizes that their community often depends on the pimento industry, and then you have actual workers eating the pimento. It’s a really interesting full circle and I don’t know that people intentionally did it this way. I think that this was all experimental, they were hoping that they could entrench the peach and the pimento in their communities, and grow an industry in Georgia. It’s just also one of those funny things about innovations, that you don’t know what’s going to stick, but here we are talking about Georgia peaches more than 100 years later.

Margonelli: Right, you really don’t know what’s going to stick. It’s interesting, I was re-reading your story for the umpteenth time, and I was thinking about how oftentimes the route from a technological breakthrough to massive cultural adoption and a new industry, is called the valley of death.

Greenlee: Tell me more.

Margonelli: It’s called the valley of death and part of that refers to how difficult it is to get funding. You can get funding for basic research and then there’s applied research. There’s this period where it’s very hard to get the next level of funding to go back. You saw that with electric cars; for years there were stuttering attempts at electric cars, and then gradually the market matured, and now suddenly it’s a booming thing. But there was 15 years or so where it was pretty squishy, there was all this uncertainty. But that happens at a very micro level with all kinds of little innovations. We tend to say that, that period of the valley of death, which is a quote from the Bible, but you’re going through this valley of death where your idea might stall.

We tend to feel that, that needs more money, or it needs certain kinds of government incubators, or certain kinds of education initiatives. What this story suggests is that you also need an ideology and a network of people, who are all willing to break the different kinds of eggs that are necessary and create the myths that get you to the other side. I don’t know necessarily that creating a myth is part of the school that we have for innovators, but at the same time when you look at the ones that have survived, Tesla being an example, myth becomes extremely important in their survival.

Greenlee: Yeah, I think there’s a couple things there. The valley of death might be crisis, which was emerging out into this post-war period, and it might be this less weaponized version of the lost cause, that the South must do something to refashion itself and to become part of the nation. What really, probably worked best, is for the South to prove that it is an economic power that had been sleeping before, but at the same time it can draw from its traditional agricultural sector, and then enhance it in a way that it could establish new markets that the whole nation could benefit from. I think there’s something about the emotion of the lost cause that the South was a section that could be left behind, and how do we reintegrate it?

There’s something about those regional feelings, about north versus south, that still survive, and there are still definitely tensions in this. Those tensions, however, are being deployed entrepreneurially, and within these small groups of people, men and some women, who decide that yes, we can do this, we have the natural resources, and we have the intellectual resources that we can go toe to toe with any industry, whether it’s New Jersey peaches, Colorado peaches, California pimentos, and we can do that.

Narrative may be the necessary ingredient that we tend to neglect to talk about when we’re talking about innovation, because Samuel Rumph and his peers, so many of them had an idea of their sense of self as individual, but also as the best men of the region. That propelled them to think, “We can become the best fruit buyers in the country, and then Georgia can become the peach state.” The stories we tell ourselves are really important fuel for creation.

Margonelli: They are. And it’s those stories, also, that got people to eat the pimento. I remember growing up, that we got pimentos to put into chicken a la king, because it was fancy. It was an exciting food, because it was fancy, and it was chicken in a flour sauce.

Greenlee: Right, it’s that fanciness that got people, and then there was the idea that we’re taking part in creating this fancy thing. You bring people in with the allure of the new, but then you also bring them in, in the creation of that newness. They get to have a little bit of that shine, which then brings in a whole other group of people who are consumers, but maybe some of them are consumers/creators/cultivators, too.

Margonelli: Yeah, it’s such a complex story. I want to end with one last question, which is there’s this larger picture of stories that we tell around innovation, and I know you’ve been working on and thinking about innovation for a long time. I just wondered, what are the stories about innovation that you’re looking for these days, and that you’re interested in?

Greenlee: I think this peach story has gotten me on a tear thinking about agriculture and why things are the way they are. As a historian, I’m always asking, “Why does X exist?” And it’s never a simple answer, right? I’ve been thinking about the history of naming seeds and why we follow naming conventions. There’s a movement afoot that is trying to rename a number of crop varieties, and trying to integrate a more accurate history of the people involved in breeding those varieties, and that’s really slippery business here. It even could take us back to Samuel Rumph, because do we believe that he was actually responsible for all this labor? Chances are, there are whole gangs of newly freed, within a generation African American laborers working on his plantation doing much of that work, who are as much a part, an invisible part, but are as much a part of this horticulturalist network that he belonged to, as someone of the folks who were attending these shows where they showed off their new pineapple pear. I’m really interested in thinking about equity and who gets credit in the seed industry at a time when we’re hearing a lot about saving heirloom potatoes, collards, or peas.

Margonelli: This has been a wonderful conversation about all the hidden people and processes involved in innovation and profound regional transformation. To learn more, read Cynthia Greenlee’s piece, “Reinventing the Peach, the Pimento, and Regional Identity” on the Issues website. You can also find more of Cynthia’s work by visiting her website at CynthiaGreenlee.com. Subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. You can email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions. If you enjoy conversations like this one, visit issues.org, where you can subscribe to our magazine and find more essays. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberley Quach, and audio engineer, Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology. thank you for joining us.