I was on a grocery run at my usual supermarket when I noticed something remarkable. After decades of finding only one or two varieties of pimiento cheese squirreled away in the dark recesses of a back dairy case, the store now had stacks of it in a prominent spot near the produce department.
I counted about 15 different kinds.
With chefs making their own pimiento cheese and the spread showing up on menus atop hamburgers, in dips and even as fried fritters, I'd long suspected that this lowly spread of the masses was benefiting from the current national love of Southern edibles. But when a Cary supermarket is chock-full of it, pimiento cheese has truly taken a big step away from its roots.
Pimiento cheese was my peanut butter growing up, as it was for a lot of Southerners. There are many reasons why, and Durham writer Emily E. Wallace enumerates them all in a masters thesis she wrote on pimiento cheese. It's fascinating, and you should find it online (http://tinyurl.com/bwkh8q5). But the major points are that pimiento peppers were widely grown in the South by the late 1920s and cheese became less expensive. Pimiento cheese sandwiches became both a inexpensive lunch for textile workers to carry to mills and a delicacy for tea rooms and church suppers, she writes.
So pimiento cheese has always lived a kind of double life, as both the spread of the people and girly food. Today, pimiento cheese has gone to town.
I called my friend, writer and food fan Claire Cusick in Durham, to come over and taste some with me. She had a peanut-butter childhood in Pittsburgh, but has embraced pimiento cheese so much that you'd hardly know she wasn't Southern-bred.
We conducted an unscientific but well-considered comparison of North Carolina-made pimiento cheeses found in your average suburban super-sized grocery store, plus one I sought out on the basis of what I'd heard about it.
We looked at 10 varieties from five makers and broke them into three categories: classic, gourmet and variations. Classic is the old-fashioned kind of pimiento cheese: a little (or a lot) sweet, and spreadable for sandwiches, with a mild cheese flavor. Gourmet uses fancier cheeses. For variations, anything goes.
Two of the three classic styles we sampled were too sweet for us, even considering it's OK for it to be a little sweet. Our favorite of this type was Our Pride, which was not as sweet, with chunks in its smooth texture and a freshly made flavor. It didn't scream "cheese." But with this style, you don't expect a big burst of sharp Cheddar.
I'd heard people talk about Our Pride for years, but it's not easy to find. I had to drive to the plant in Roxboro to get it because I couldn't find it in Triangle stores.
In the gourmet category, texture became an issue. Augusta's, made in Charlotte, was like a grainy paste, although it had good cheese flavor of and a hint of mustard. We felt it wasn't grilled-pimiento-cheese-sandwich-worthy, because it lost firmness quickly as it approached room temperature.
My Three Sons Emmy's Original, a relatively new brand made in Greensboro, was very thick with a good cheese flavor and a slightly sweet aftertaste. The texture turned off Claire, while the sweet aftertaste bugged me. (Maybe the flavor came from the corn syrup in the "all natural mayonnaise" listed on the label.)
We moved on to variations. Our Pride's jalapeno didn't have much jalapeno flavor. And despite the container's claim of "all the flavor, not the fire," Augusta's jalapeno was pretty doggone hot (still with that odd texture). We thought it would be good for melting over nachos. My Three Sons had a balanced combination of heat and cheese flavor.
Augusta's makes an olive flavor which we thought tasted like an olive dip, not pimiento cheese. The label does not list pimentos as an ingredient, so I would make a case for our opinion.
My Three Sons Spicy White Cheddar includes jalapenos, and we suspected cayenne was among the secret spices. It has heat, but it doesn't overpower the cheese flavor. The texture was chunkier, pleasing Claire more than the original version.
Considring flavor and texture, our overall favorite was My Three Sons Spicy White Cheddar. I still believe there's a place for classic pimiento cheese, so I bucked Claire to give a nod to Our Pride as well.
In a sign of just how gourmet humble pimiento cheese has become, a 10-ounce tub of My Three Sons or a 12-ounce tub of Augusta's runs more than $6. The classic kinds cost about half that.
We didn't even consider the restaurants, markets and old-fashioned soda fountains that make their own pimiento cheese, nor a variety from South Carolina that is showing up in grocery stores.
Take those into consideration, and it's clear there's an orange wave sweeping the country. Just pass me the light bread.
Debbie Moose's Homemade Pimiento Cheese
Pimiento cheese is highly personal. I like a chunky texture and prefer the round shreds I get from a meat grinder to the flat strips that come from a box grater. Either way, do not start with already grated cheese - the flavor won't be nearly as good. Add mayo if you like a creamy spread. Serve this on sandwiches, crackers or even slices of cucumber.
1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 pound hoop cheese or Colby cheese
1/2 of a medium-sized sweet onion, such as Vidalia
1 large clove garlic
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 (4-ounce) jar chopped pimientos, drained
Dash of cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste
GRATE the cheeses to a medium-chunky texture. I like to use the meat grinder attachment on my stand mixer to make a rounder shred rather than flat strips. Put the grated cheeses in a large bowl.
CHOP the onion into coarse chunks. Put the onion and garlic through the grinder or finely chop it in a food processor. Stir them into the cheeses. Add the mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, pimientos and cayenne pepper, and stir well to combine. Taste, then add salt and pepper as needed.
COVER the bowl and refirgerate at least 8 hours or overnight before serving.
YIELD: About 8 servings.
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