This is a year of profound and controversial change for the Augusta National Golf Club, and I am, of course, talking about the curious case of the pimento cheese recipe.
There's definitely more spice, and some think there's more mayo. The consistency has changed, sometimes leaving soggy bread gummed up around a big blob of the spread. From the outside, it seems like a combination of legal liability issues and stubborn pride has left the Masters concessions staff trying - and failing, in a rare moment of fallibility - to re-create the same recipe that generations of golf fans have enjoyed.
"I am fine with adding the female members, and I am tolerating the belly putters," fan Paul Jones said, "but changing the pimento cheese recipe is taking change too damn far. We actually spent a lot of time trying to re-create the recipe."
On Wednesday morning, I did some reporting - my colleague Don Van Natta Jr. won a Pulitzer for investigating al-Qaida, which obviously pales in comparison to my digging into a sandwich - and ended up on North Leg Road in Augusta, sitting in a branch of the fried chicken chain Wife Saver. (This is actually its name.)
These guys are fried chicken ninjas. Excuse the following bit of blasphemy, but it is better than your grandmother's. Takeout from Wife Saver has been a staple of University of Georgia tailgates for decades. Ted Godfrey, the franchise owner and previous maker of the pimento cheese, is trying to be careful, because he sure would like to get the tournament business back.
The sign outside the restaurant advertised the "original Augusta recipe" for the pimento cheese, words vetted by his lawyers to make sure he didn't anger the club.
"I'll give you the whole story," he says.
Almost 30 years ago, tournament officials asked him to take over making the chicken sandwiches. Originally, the Masters served the unbelievably old-school Southern combination of a bone-in fried chicken breast on a piece of white bread, which was there just to soak up the grease. Rumor has it the members got tired of patrons throwing chicken bones around their perfectly manicured golf course and switched to a patty. So in 1985, Godfrey started serving a boneless chicken breast on half a hamburger bun, in keeping with tradition. Four years later, he thinks, it became a complete sandwich.
The product came from a food service company in Georgia, which then went out of business. For a few years, Godfrey tried different suppliers but couldn't re-create the same taste. Finally, a former R&D man for the old company located the exact flavour profile. The sandwiches had a high black pepper content, which made them too spicy to eat without the bread, but just perfect with it. All was right with the world.
"Now let me tell you what happened to the chicken sandwich," he says.
For years, Godfrey and his crew fried chicken all day, cooling the patties and assembling the sandwiches at night. Four years ago, that changed. "After Billy Payne came in - and who knows, because you don't know the secrets going on out there - supposedly the lawyers said, 'We have to bring in outside consulting firms to make sure all the food is being handled properly,'" Godfrey says. "That is the last time I did them."
According to ServSafe regulations, the sandwiches must be cooled in a refrigerator, which means that Augusta National couldn't serve fried chicken the way it's meant to be eaten at a Southern picnic. It's proof the universe has a delicious sense of humour, using government regulations to stop the mostly anti-government golf club members from having the sandwich they want.
"They were served refrigerator cold," Godfrey says. "All these other years, they were served room temperature. Like your grandmama used to serve chicken. … They're kinda caught between a rock and a hard spot."
Last year, there were no sandwiches sold, but this year, possibly because of complaints, they've returned. They taste different, which is strange, since the club owns the recipe. Godfrey and I guessed that they taste-tested the sandwich without bread and thought it was too spicy.
This brings us to Pimento-gate.
For as long as people can remember, a man in Aiken, South Carolina, made and mixed the cheese himself. Ten or so years ago, the tournament decided to get Wife Saver to make the sandwiches. The old man, obviously mad about losing the business, refused to give the tournament the recipe. Godfrey began the months-long search to re-create the spread.
"The cheese was a distinct cheese," he says. "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."
Godfrey kept mixing batches, taking them to the club's concessions committee, who'd taste them all. Everyone agreed he was close, but it wasn't the same. A woman who worked for the tournament had frozen a batch, so they had a control sample to work from. Finally, they stumbled on the perfect cheese.
" … and it still wasn't right," Godfrey says.
The search got serious. Because the old man wouldn't cooperate, they went above his head, contacting his supplier, finding out exactly what he'd ordered, expecting to find some secret ingredient. The invoices showed cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos. Whatever was missing lived only inside the original maker's head. One night, Godfrey figured it out. He went in, mixed up a batch and took it to the tasters.
"They said, 'You found it,'" he says.
Eating the sandwiches has become as much a part of a trip to the Masters as seeing the blooming azaleas. Then, three or four years ago, the Wife Saver did the chicken sandwich for the last time, and as part of the same tournament initiative to handle concessions in-house, the restaurant stopped making the pimento cheese. Godfrey says he was the last local food vendor to be let go by the Masters. Now the sandwiches are different, because he won't give them the missing ingredient. Augusta National declined to comment on cheese.
The rumor is that they came back to Godfrey to ask for the recipe, but he doesn't want to comment about that. He won't tell me what's missing.
"I cannot tell you what the secret is," he says. "But there's a secret there."
Only this time, there is no frozen sample. The concessions committee can't reverse-engineer the sandwiches. The club has a virtually unlimited supply of money, and access to the best chefs in the world, and they can't re-create the Wife Saver. The spice that people noticed this year -- if I had to guess -- was the chef's attempt to find the missing ingredient.
And so here we are.
Godfrey stands up and goes into the kitchen, coming back with an unmarked plastic pint container. He hands me a plastic spoon and smiles. Good God, it's the old Augusta National pimento cheese recipe. A food salesman is standing at the counter, and he sees the look on my face. He laughs.
"That s--- gets you religious," he says.