It’s summer! And pimento cheese is this year’s no-sweat go-to for picnics, cookouts, and backyard celebrations. Everyone loves pimento cheese—and everyone will love you for serving forth pimento cheese crackers, stuffed veggies, or PC sandwiches. Gooey & groovy pimento cheese burgers and dogs are guaranteed to cause outright swooning. Here’s the cheerful spread’s story and two ways to make it.
Pimento cheese is the stuff! In fact, 2011 is “The Year of Pimento Cheese!” according to Time Magazine. In a piece on New Year’s predictions, Time’s Joel Stein asked Adam Rapoport, editor of Bon Appétit Magazine, what will be the year’s top three foods. He listed Pie, Pimento Cheese, and Rabbit. (I think there’s an all-in-one recipe there.)
Bon Appétit nailed it. Pimento Cheese is showing up everywhere—spreading up the food chain from lowly dive, to pub and bistro, all the way to the carte du jour of your better white tablecloth establishment. It’s being crafted from both aged regional cheeses and don’t-even-try-to-pretend-we-got-class Velveeta. Go into a favorite local eatery and you’ll find pimento cheese on burgers, dogs, sandwiches—even fries. And if the place is truly trendy, it’ll be featured as house-made, probably kicked up with jalapenos, and star in omelets, empanadas, risottos, and as dip for house-made kettle chips (which I predict will be on 2012’s hot list).
Keep reading to find out pimento cheese’s history and two ways to make some for summer entertaining…
A surprising history
(at least to a Southerner)
Everyone knows Pimento Cheese is as Southern as sweet tea and fried okra. Right? That’s what I’ve always thought—believed—to be biblical fact. But here is some shocking news. Although p’mennacheese is ubiquitous in the South like nowhere else in the U.S., it originated in the North and Midwest and was once popular and prevailent nationwide.
Pimento and Cheese (conjuncted here for definition) came together near the turn of the last century as a combination of two wildly popular new commodity products—Neufchatel cheese and canned Spanish pimiento peppers. (This is also when pimiento lost one of its i’s.) First generation pimento cheese was white, semi-solid, and sprinkled with red pimentos that Kraft Foods ads poetically described as “studded like rubies.” Pimento cheese was a heavily advertised product and its popularity spread across the country through the 1900s.
Then, in 1916, a third commodity product called Processed American Cheese began production in Chicago’s Kraft Foods factories. Soon after, this miracle food showed up in pimento cheese and its iconic orange color was borne. Eventually the cheerful spread was packed into jars that could be reused as drinking glasses, sealing its popularity throughout the depression and war.
By the 1920s, Georgia became the pimento growing and canning capital of the country and Southern food manufactures began packaging regional versions of pimento cheese spreads. The poorest folks, who could not afford the store bought variety, would buy canned pimentos and hoop cheese to make their own economical batches. Pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread became the foremost cheap and easy lunch, especially for mill workers who migrated from farms to the expanding number of textile mills across the Piedmont regions of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Jump to the present and that same Piedmont Crescent is the epicenter of pimento cheese production and consumption today. And the area around Charlotte, where I grew up, is the center of that epicenter, putting away more industrially manufactured pimento cheese spread than any other region in the United States.
Not a PC kid
Pimento cheese was not a childhood favorite. Momma spread it thin as humanly possible on Sunbeam white bread. Meager to say the least. During Thanksgiving and Christmas, when every festive southerner was crunching their pimento cheese-stuffed celery (the only hors d’oeuvres my family ever participated in) I had to flee to another room to escape the horrendous crunching. And I didn’t like the icky aftertaste of the packaged stuff. Now I realize that peculiar savor comes from artificial flavor, color, additives, and preservatives—up to 30 unnatural ingredients in some commercially made products. Hey, on the plus side, the store bought stuff can sit in the fridge for months, inert and unspoiled.
When I grew up and turned into a foodie my own PC recipe evolved and I became totally devoted and addicted to the stuff. Now I make what my partner Skip calls vats for holidays and vacations. Our friends and family expect it. The first day of our annual beach trip with friends I mix up a half gallon and, predictably, everyone makes fun of the “tub.” But three-quarters of the way through the week they start squirreling away little stashes in the fridge, and on the last day we’re finger-fighting for the last bit. That recipe is the first one that follows below.
Can I make authentic pimento cheese?
Magic 8 Ball says Very doubtful. Somebody will call you out no matter how Southern the recipe you choose claims to be. I think that, among Southerners, opinions on how to make authentic pimento cheese are about as diverse and disputed as what constitutes real bar-b-que. Take the issue of cream cheese. Many opinionated Southerners (a redundant term) will say cream cheese does not belong in authentic pimento cheese. I used to make the spread solely with mayo as the binder, but I tried cream cheese one time and had an aha moment—it blended flavors perfectly in an ideal creamy consistency. It’s authentic to me and I’m Southern. And lots of other authentic Southerners, including the Lee Brothers and the overly authentic Paula Deen, include cream cheese in their recipes. So there!
That said, in the spirit of multi-authenticity, I’ve included the traditional mayonaisse-only version for those who have yet to experience pimento cheese in its most elemental form. When we had homemade pimento cheese growing up, which was rare because the store-bought stuff was most convenient, this is the recipe my mom and aunts followed… un-swervingly… without random embellishment.
Pimento cheese two ways
Regardless of which of the recipes you choose, the heavy-handed blending necessary to pull everything together softens the cheese and the initial mixture will be somewhat runny. For ideal stuffing and spreading consistency, and to meld the flavors, chill at least 3–4 hours before serving—overnight is ideal. Also note that hot peppers and spicy seasonings get stronger overnight. And that’s a good thing. Store pimento cheese in glass or porcelain containers in the refrigerator for up to 7 days.
CB’s More is More Fabulous Pimento Cheese
Yield: about 4 cups
After the first seven ingredients, you can leave out or increase anything. Other embellishments might be a seeded chipotle or two, wasabi, smoked paprika, capers, or any sort of pickle. For cheese, use any combination you like—white or orange, smoked or peppered. I’ve tossed in a fistful of blue cheese to the mix and it’s amazing. For mayonnaise, use Duke’s if you’re in-country, and outside of Dixie use Hellmans/Best Foods. Just never, ever use Miracle Whip. I really mean that.
8 oz. extra sharp white Cheddar (i.e. Vermont)
8 oz. extra sharp orange Cheddar
½ cup chopped pimentos, drained and finely diced (4 oz. jar)
½ cup roasted red peppers, drained and finely diced
3 oz. pkg. cream cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
1 Tbl vinegar or lemon juice
1 Tbl stuffed olives, diced
1 Tbl shallot, finely diced
1 Tbl jalapeno, seeded and finely diced, about 1 pepper (optional)
1 Tbl prepared horseradish
1–2 tsp brown sugar
1–2 tsp Vietnamese or sriracha chili sauce (optional)
1 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp black pepper, coarse ground
¼ tsp celery seed
¼ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp onion powder
Salt, to taste
Grate cheese into large bowl using large or medium holes of hand grater, food processor, or food mill. Add diced pimentos and set aside. In another bowl whisk together cream cheese and mayonnaise until consistency of cottage cheese (will be lumpy). Add cream cheese mixture and remaining ingredients to bowl with cheese and pimento. Begin blending, using one of the three mixing options below, until ingredients are evenly combined. You should end up with flecks of cheese and pimento in an even pale orange base.
You can mix by hand with a heavy fork, mashing and pressing against the sides of the bowl. This will take 5–6 minutes and a strong arm. You can use a hand- or stand-mixer and blend for about 1–3 minutes. Or you can blend and kneed by hand for 1–2 minutes. I don’t recommend using a food processor or blender. My preference, a hand mixer.
Minimalist Pimento Cheese
Yield: about 3 cups
16 oz. (1 lb) sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar (orange, of coarse)
1 7–8 oz jar chopped pimentos, drained and finely diced
2/3 cup mayonnaise
¼–½ teaspoon ground black pepper, the kind from a can
Salt, to taste
Optional and controversial: garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, celery seed, onion, pickles, and heaven-forbid-sugar
Grate cheese into large bowl, using large or medium holes of hand grater, food processor, or food mill. Add remaining ingredients and blend, using one of the three mixing options above, until ingredients are well combined with flecks of cheese and pimento in an even orange color base.