If you grew up south of the Mason-Dixon line, have ever been to the Florida-Georgia football game (aka the world’s largest cocktail party) or tried the signature sandwich at the Masters golf tournament, you already know about pimento cheese.
A rudimentary form of the spread—cream cheese studded with diced imported Spanish pimiento peppers—originated up north during the late-19th century heyday of New York state’s cheese factories, among the U.S.’s first industrial food-making facilities, and was mass-marketed nationwide. Though it’s long been an icon of American vernacular cuisine, how it became an emblem of the South is somewhat of a mystery.
Around 1910, Georgia farmers began cultivating pimientos, a smallish, meaty and mild member of the capsicum family, rendering them less exotic and more affordable. Starting in the 1920s, kids all over the South were packed off to school with homemade pimento cheese sandwiches in their lunchboxes. Every matriarch developed her own “best recipe,” and there was hardly a social event without it. Somewhere along the way, the second “i” was dropped and it took on a lively orange tinge when so-called “yellow cheddar,” colored with annatto, became a key ingredient.
More recently, with the elevation of down-home cooking, artisanal producers began hawking gourmet versions. Some good ones are available online from Blackberry Farm, Callie’s, Cast Iron Gourmet, Fromagerie Belle Chevre and Palmetto. Sweet Grass Dairy’s standout (see “Sweet Georgia on My Mind,” March 31) includes Spanish piquillos and pimentón (smoked paprika), lending it a distinctly chorizolike flavor.
A basic pimento cheese—thickish, smooth and akin to the better store-bought versions—features a 2-to-1 ratio of cheddar to cream cheese, diced pimentos and mayonnaise; it’s seasoned to taste with salt and pepper, and spiced up with some cayenne plus garlic and/or onion powder. The cheese ought to be the best sharp cheddar available along with one or two other types for variety and depth of flavor. A good Southern duo, tested for this article, is the tangy Buttermilk Cheddar and its sister cheese, a rich, colorful Colby, from Tennessee’s Sweetwater Valley Farm.
Anyone wishing to tap into authentic tradition and willing to expend a little extra effort would do well to take inspiration from Scott Peacock’s purist-minimalist approach (see recipe). A native of Hartford, Ala., Peacock is a former top restaurant chef who co-authored The Gift of Southern Cooking (Knopf, 2003) with his friend Edna Lewis, the renowned doyenne of Southern cuisine.
Peacock fire-roasts his own red bell peppers—“I char the bejesus out of them, which gives more flavor”—whips up his mayonnaise from scratch and stresses hands-on prep: “Grating the cheese by hand you get a certain texture you can’t get from a machine. You want it blended but not so much that it’s homogenous.
“A really good pimento cheese reveals itself in layers like a fine wine; it’s not just one-dimensional,” adds Peacock, who now conducts “biscuit experience” workshops at Reverie, an antebellum mansion in Marion, Ala.
Beyond its standard applications on sandwiches or Saltines, as in Bubba Blue’s shrimp litany from Forrest Gump, pimento cheese offers seemingly endless options, from hush puppies and fritters to biscuits and gougères, burgers and dogs to soups and casseroles. There are versions incorporating bacon, beer and buttermilk, not to mention pickles, jalapeños, onions, chopped fresh garlic or parsley.
In 2003, the Southern Foodways Alliance announced a pimento cheese invitational that elicited 350 responses. Volunteer Melissa Hall, who hails from rural eastern Kentucky, tested over 100 of the recipes, narrowing them down to five finalists. The winner, dubbed Blue Ribbon Pimento Cheese, was from Nan Davis, of Coffeeville, Miss., who drew on her aunt Ella’s version; it was published in The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook (University of Georgia, 2010).
After the event, the chefs rolled generous scoops of leftover spread in cornmeal and deep-fried them. “I am completely opposed to the ‘state fairification’ of foods, but this was extraordinary,” says Hall, now SFA’s managing director. Surely, it would have done ol’ Forrest and Bubba proud.
David Gibbons is co-author of Mastering Cheese.
Homemade Pimento Cheese
5 ounces sharp yellow cheddar
5 ounces sharp white cheddar, Colby, Gouda or Gruyère
4 to 6 tablespoons diced pimentos or fire-roasted red bell pepper (from 1 medium pepper)
3/4 cup homemade or Duke’s mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne or several dashes Louisiana hot sauce (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika (optional)
1. Allow the cheeses to come to room temperature then grate them on the large-hole side of a box grater.
2. Combine the cheeses with the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and mix with a spoon or large fork until well-combined but still rough-textured. Do not overmix.
3. Serve with crudités and/or on white bread as a sandwich. Yields about 2 cups, enough for six sandwiches or two dozen crackers.