A True Southerner's Guide to Pimento Cheese
From the mayo to the peppers, we cover everything
by Layla Khoury-HanoldApril 7th, 2015
It was my first encounter with Pimento cheese.
Unsure of what I was eating, I dipped a cracker into the creamy, red-flecked orange cheese mixture. When someone explained to me that it was a combination of grated cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and chopped pimento peppers, I felt my brain explode a little. How could it be that such a simple concoction held me so captivated?
A few years later, when I found out that my husband and I were moving to Augusta, Georgia, I immediately associated our move to the South with ready access to pimento cheese. As an aspiring Southern Belle, I knew I wanted to have a pimento cheese recipe in my arsenal. To better understand “the pâté of the South” and its place in Southern food culture, I consulted Melissa Booth Hall, assistant director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and editor of the Pimento Cheese Invitational, a cookbook with over 300 recipes and stories.
“One of the things we were able to piece together was that over and over again we saw that it had a place in summer meals, but that it also shows up a fair amount on holiday tables, like at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
One of the reasons it’s viewed as a celebration food is that it calls for cheese, an ingredient that people didn’t make themselves. Thinking about the not-too-distant past, that meant a family had to have the means to purchase it, and so for a lot of Southern families it was a marker of success to serve pimento cheese.
More recently, there was a quick growth of regional mayonnaise producers, like Duke’s, Blue Plate and JFG, making a high quality shelf stable product that people had ample access to. Pimiento peppers were originally imported from Spain, until the South – Georgia in particular – started to grow and jar them domestically.
“We started to see an industry that began to support pimento cheese in a way that you didn’t necessarily see outside of the region,” Melissa explained.
It’s also one of those easy go-to recipes that you can make last-minute since it incorporates ingredients you likely already have in your fridge and pantry. This of course plays into my notion of Southern hospitality, being ready to share a smile and a snack at a moment’s notice.
Naturally, with any iconic food, there are fierce loyalties to family recipes and lines on where people stand on ingredients. My friend Annie, who hails from Louisville, swears, "the best and only pimento cheese comes from Morris Deli on Taylorsville Rd. I will literally take up arms over this." But without a doubt, pimento cheese is the glue that unites Southerners, whether you hail from Charlotte or Oxford. Here, Melissa shares where she likes to get a little fancy (hint: it involves cheese – she is a girl after my own heart), where she absolutely draws the line, and the last word on store-bought pimento cheese.
“A lot of people would urge you to make your own, but if you don’t, I think Duke’s and Blue Plate are great. A number of people have shared with me that when they aren't making their own mayo, they mix in the juice of half a lemon to mimic that fresh mayo taste and punch up the flavor.”
“Sunshine is still the brand to use, and I always drain the peppers. A lot of people say to roast your own peppers – it certainly makes for a brighter, fancier flavor. Other people say it’s fine to use jarred peppers, but to use roasted red peppers instead since the modern pimento is too bland. More often than not I tend to use roasted red peppers, because it’s what I typically have in the house.”
“My recipe is pretty traditional, but I like to get a little fancy with the cheeses. I like extremely sharp cheddar and Parmesan, or any mix of cheeses that I enjoy. I trend towards Cabot cheddars in grocery stores, but if I’m going to visit my mother in Tennessee, I stop off at Sweet Water Valley Farm and stock up on their great cheddar. On occasion I’ve added a little bit of feta – it’s bright, sharp and a little bit salty. If you’re only using one cheese, use sharp cheddar."
Common add-ins include any combination of chopped bread and butter pickles, pickle juice, cayenne pepper, black pepper, Tabasco or Worcestershire sauce – the variations are endless. “The final fault line comes down to how you feel about onions and whether or not to add them. There are some recipes that have a little garlic, onion, green onion, chives, ramps or pickled ramps…anything that gives you that onion-y bite.” But Melissa draws the line at the addition of one particular condiment. “The only time I wanted to say ‘that’s not okay!’ is when I heard that some people add a tablespoon of peanut butter. You may not do that!”
“When it comes to entertaining, I’m a traditionalist. I'll serve with a whole bunch of crackers and celery sticks,” Melissa reveals. Of course, there are even allegiances when it comes to crackers. In the film Pimento Cheese, Please, the chef at Comfort, located in Richmond, VA, likes to serve their homemade pimento cheese with thinly shaved local ham, homemade bread and butter pickles and Ritz crackers. “Always Ritz crackers. It’s just the best on Ritz. The butteriness… they almost fall apart as soon as you put some of the cheese on it. It’s awesome.”
It used to be borderline unacceptable to buy store-bought pimento cheese, but the quality has gotten a lot better. These are a few of the brands that Melissa can vouch for. “There’s a company in North Carolina called Red Clay Gourmet. They do a regular pimento cheese, a jalapeño one and one made with a hickory-smoked cheddar, which has a really intense taste. The Fresh Market makes an in-house pimento cheese that people like. And Newk’s Eatery, which started in Oxford, MS, is starting to pop up around the South. They sell it by the container, but you will pay dearly for it – a quart-sized container costs around $14. But you're paying for high quality ingredients and a made fresh product.”