During Yahoo Y’All week, we’re celebrating the food culture of the American South. Expect profiles of cooks, makers, and bartenders, plus recipes showcasing the classics (and twists on those classics) you love.
Photo credit: Kristen Taylor, Flickr
The first time I ate pimento cheese (or pimiento, as some spell it) was as a child at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey. It came in a small glass jar and was a milky-peach color similar to that of a St. Joseph baby aspirin. It was very smooth, like butter, and bland. My grandmother would spread it between two slices of white bread, crusts trimmed off neatly. To my family, this was a pimento cheese sandwich. (As Northerners, we had no pimento cheese benchmark.)
Fast-forward a few decades. I started dating a Southern chef and visiting the South on a frequent basis. We took many a food road trip and I quickly learned that what my grandmother served was not pimento cheese. Sure, it might have said “pimento cheese spread” on the jar, but Grandma was conned. She’s not around to defend herself, but were she alive today, she’d have to admit that the jarred concoction was literally a pale imitation of the real stuff.
Pimento cheese—the mix of cheddar, mayo and pimento peppers familiar to any Southern food fan—is one of the most important dishes in the Southern food canon. If there was a master list of iconic Southern dishes, pimento cheese would be in the top 10. What I’ve learned in my travels through Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina is that each chef, restaurant, and grocery has its own spin on the addictive dish. It’s fun to read a pimento cheese recipe and see how various people do it differently and discover their unique ingredients and techniques. Are they fans of smooth or chunky pimento cheese? Do they use Duke’s or Hellman’s? (The late, legendary Edna Lewis swore by homemade mayonnaise.) Popular Southern chef Sean Brock, who falls into the Duke’s camp, sneaks in some pickled ramps and a bit of brine. The highly regarded chef Frank Stitt of Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill adds a hint of sugar.
Me? I have to confess I’ve never made pimento cheese. But I’m hopelessly hooked on the stuff. If I see it on a menu or a refrigerated shelf, I order it or buy it. It’s great on Ritz crackers, on a hamburger, or as the star of a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s also terrific—wholesome, even—as a dip for celery and carrots. Like a true devotee, I have two favorite pimento cheese memories. First, the pimento cheese at the luxurious Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, made by chef Joseph Lenn and his crew. Chunky, slightly spicy, and very heavenly, it came in a small Mason jar with some veggies and crackers on the side. (They do sell the pimento cheese online, $10 for eight ounces.) Second, the pimento cheese sandwich at the legendary Sally Bell’s Kitchen in Richmond, Virginia. It’s THE place for a boxed lunch. You order at the counter and receive a white parcel, a bit smaller than a shoebox, filled with the sandwich of your choice plus deviled egg, potato salad, and cupcake. Their pimento cheese is sweet and smooth, ladylike if you will, almost the opposite of Blackberry’s. The whole meal is so beautifully boxed up that you almost don’t want to eat it. But, of course, you do.
Red Rind Pimento Cheese
Makes 4 cups
This recipe comes from the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook. B.T.C., which bills itself as a small-town grocery with big-city food. It’s located in Water Valley, Mississippi, on (appropriately enough) Main Street. “This recipe employs no exotic additions,” they cautioned. But they do use hoop cheese in place of cheddar. You can swap in your favorite cheddar if you can’t find hoop cheese.
1 pound red rind hoop cheese, shredded (4 cups)
½ cup chopped pimentos
½ cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Dash of Tabasco sauce
1 tsp. granulated onion
1 tsp. granulated garlic
⅛ tsp. dry mustard
⅛ tsp. sweet paprika
⅛ tsp. white pepper
Pinch of sugar
In a medium bowl, combine the cheese, pimentos, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, granulated onion, granulated garlic, mustard, paprika, white pepper, and sugar.
Using your hands, mix thoroughly until creamy. Season with salt to taste. Refrigerate for 4 hours before serving. The pimento cheese will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 7 days.
More pimento cheesy goodness:
Do you have a favorite pimento cheese or a certain way you make the Southern treat? Let us know!