Articles & Essays
|"Pimento Perfection: A history of one of the south's go-to foods"
West Virginia South (Beckley, WV)
| When I was in junior high school, a visiting friend and I needed a snack. These visits weren’t called play dates back then, as if they were board game-based matchmaking, but just “coming over.”
I went straight to the refrigerator for our household bulwark, our first line of defense against the hungries any time of the day or night: pimento cheese.
My friend wrinkled her nose. Then she asked for peanut butter.
Peanut butter? I wasn’t sure we had any. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten it. I’d never seen either of my parents eat the stuff, which looked like red clay from our back yard mixed with oil and stuffed in a jar. But I found some in the back of a cabinet, which foreshadowed my brilliant future as a hostess, unfazed by any guest’s weird request.
My family devoured pimento cheese by the tub-load, spreading it on bread and crackers at a blistering pace that outstripped even our mayonnaise consumption during tomato-sandwich season - and we often used pimento cheese on those, too. Our family crest should show happy pimiento peppers dancing with cheddar slices.
Our love of the orange spread honestly expressed our roots, because pimento cheese has a deep history in the South. And it’s an honorable one, worthy of examination in a masters thesis, as Durham, N.C., writer Emily Wallace did.
According to the thesis, the honored place that pimento cheese has in the South arose from an intersection of events that began around 1920.
Let’s start with the peppers, a mild, sweet Spanish variety called pimiento. (To avoid putting on airs, the spread dropped the second I.) The expensive imports were considered a delicacy until they were grown experimentally in Georgia in 1916. The peppers took to the Georgia clay like Rafael Nadal to the French Open court, and pimento cheese was on its way to becoming a food of the people rather than remaining a treat for the elite.
Another influence was the growth of commercial cheese production (Kraft Foods started around the same time), which brought down prices for a product that had been primarily farm-made.
Because South Carolina-made Duke’s mayonnaise already was in every well-brought-up southerner’s refrigerator, the three main ingredients were within easy grasp by the time of the next event in pimento cheese history: the industrialization of the South; in particular, the boom in textile mills.
Working people needed a midday meal that was inexpensive, easy to carry and substantial enough to fuel their hours of labor. For those with no time to pack lunches at home, pimento cheese companies had contracts with textile mill commissaries to sell their sandwiches onsite into the 1950s.
Today, the top two producers of pimento cheese in the nation are located in North Carolina. Moody Dunbar, headquartered in Johnson City, Tenn., is the biggest U.S. processor of pimiento peppers, which are sold in supermarkets under the Dromedary and Dunbar labels.
Adaptable pimento cheese has always been the perfect guest, equally at home in workers’ lunch boxes and on the fine china of tea rooms, crusts trimmed from the sandwiches, of course. There’s no way to make peanut butter suitable for Grandma’s antique Spode; a toddler’s plastic airplane plate, maybe.
This past summer, Bojangle’s brought pimento cheese to fast food by adding it to chicken biscuits in some locations. Imagine doing that with peanut butter for a moment. I apologize for the nightmares you’re going to have.
On the rare occasions when my mother wanted to gussy up things, she would stuff celery sticks with pimento cheese, and i rediscovered that combination on a vacation trip last year. So simple, yet the crunchy texture and fresh, green flavor of the celery goes with the smoothness of the rich, salty pimento cheese effortlessly, achieving balance that chefs work hard for. Stuff peanut butter in celery and it slides around like used motor oil, refusing to play well with the poor stalk.
I’ve never met a soul who makes their own peanut butter, while home cooks take pride in homemade pimento cheese as much as they do their deviled eggs and pound cake. Even my mother, who embraced Swanson’s family-size frozen dinners with the zeal of a tent-revival convert, would occasionally make it, clamping her hand-cranked food grinder to the edge of the kitchen counter and feeding in cheese chunk by chunk..
I considered trying to convert my junior high friend. Then she asked for pickles to put on her peanut butter sandwich.
You have to know a lost cause when you see it. Although pickles might be good in pimento cheese.
Debbie’s Pimento Cheese
You can change this recipe to suit your taste, except for one thing: Do not use pre-shredded cheese. It has been coated to prevent it from clumping, making it too dry to work well in pimento cheese. Using two kinds of cheese offers richer flavor. I like the texture I get by putting the cheeses and other ingredients through the food grinder attached to my stand mixer, but a food processor or hand grater works, too. A version of this recipe originally appeared in my book “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home.”
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1/2 pound sharp yelllow cheddar cheese
1/2 pound white cheddar cheese
1/2 of a small red onion, coarsely chopped
1 large clove garlic, cut into quarters
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 (4-ounce) jar chopped pimientos, drained
Dash of cayenne pepper
Black pepper to taste (optional)
Using a food grinder, the food grinder attachment to a stand mixer, food processor or hand grater, grind or shred the cheeses, onion and garlic into a large bowl. A medium-chunky texture is good.
Stir in the mayonnaise, mustard, pimientos and cayenne papper. Add black pepper if desired. The cheese is salty so you probably won’t need to add salt.
Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight to let the flavors blend. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
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