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The surprising stories behind some of the South’s most iconic foods

While recently on a farm tour out to find the stories of the foods that connect us to the southern soil, I traveled from the northern tip of South Carolina where the Carolina Reaper pepper was created, to the coastal plains of southern Georgia where award-winning olive oil is made on Georgia Olive Farms, and found these two standouts that burst with as much flavor as they do history.

The Carolina Reaper Pepper

“I can’t promise you anything, but if you can be here at 6:30 tomorrow morning, we’ll see. Drive up to the farm. Meet us at the greenhouse,” says Heidi, the executive assistant to Ed Currie, developer of the Carolina Reaper pepper and founder of the PuckerButt Pepper Company.   

It’s worth the risk of an empty trek to Ft. Mill, South Carolina, so I make the drive in hopes of seeing the infamous pepper and meeting its innovator. The Carolina Reaper has been certified by the Guiness Book of World Records since 2013 as the hottest pepper in the world at 1.7 million on the Scoville scale of heat. 

I walk in to the greenhouse as I wait, expecting to see the famed, weapon-grade, neon red peppers. I stand among the rows up to my neck in pepper plants and don’t see any peppers. Slowly, it dawns on me that the branches that I am brushing against hang heavy with the still green, wrinkled, twisted, blistered-looking peppers -- each sporting a devil’s tail. I am concerned that their oil is on my skin. When Ed appears, I tell him that I did not know there were peppers on the plants. “What do you think we grow in here, pecans?” he laughs.  

He cross-bred a pepper that a friend brought him from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent with the most fiery pepper from Pakistan procured for him by a doctor from that region. Ten years after Ed crossed these two peppers, a geneticist declared his Carolina Reaper a stable breed.

A television crew is waiting for Smokin’ Ed Currie to finish his brief session with me. They have come to town to follow him as he hosts the inaugural Carolina Reaper Challenge, a pepper-eating contest. Fans and participants come from as far away as Australia to the world headquarters of PuckerButt Pepper Company on Main Street for this event.

I ask if there are people who eat these peppers beyond the tortured participants of his contest. He says,

“Oh yes, I eat them every day with my dinner. And I’m not alone by any stretch of the imagination.”

For the health conscious masochist, it’s good to note that they are organic.

Georgia Olive Farms

Many southern cooks may have olive oil from Spain, Italy or Greece in the pantry, but the United States has its own source of award-winning olive oil in South Georgia: Georgia Olive Farms. 

“Perhaps more surprising is the sheer number of people who drive all the way out to see the olive orchards and buy olive oil directly from us here at the farm,” says Brandi Bennett, manager of the co-op in Lakeland, Georgia. 

Bennett has been there since the founding of the co-op of five farms. The farmers banded together in search of something else to grow when the state experienced an overproduction of blueberries. They discovered that the same equipment could be used to harvest olives.

The farmers in the southeastern part of the state, near Valdosta, planted the olive trees in 2009 and got their first harvest in 2011. There are three different kinds of olives grown on Georgia Olive Farms. The sandy soil of the coastal plains region of Georgia, along with the temperature, mirrors the growing conditions of its Mediterranean counterparts.

“We planted Arbequina, Koroneiki, and Arbosana olive trees because they yield such high quality oils,” says Bennett. “We sourced our olive production equipment from an Italian manufacturer.” 

Although, the Georgia-grown olive oil is a baby in an ancient industry, it has quickly garnered recognition and is used by James Beard award-winning chefs like Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston and Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta. 

The secret may be that what appears to be new is in fact old in origin. Spanish missionaries planted olive trees near St. Simon Island’s lighthouse. The reason the olive oil industry didn’t flourish in the South at the time was two-fold: It was disrupted by the Civil War, and it required intense work with low-yield. 

In essence, the purity of the product is the result of thousands of years of cultivation brought to the New World. Georgia Olive Farms offer two types of olive oils: Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the Chef’s Blend Extra Virgin featuring Arbequina olives.  •

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