Pimento cheese may be considered a quintessential southern dish. Many of us associate it with white bread sandwiches, family reunions, and funerals. But its roots lie outside the deep south, as so many dishes do. (Jump straight to the recipe).
Late 19th century pimento cheese was a marriage of New York state cream cheese and imported Spanish peppers. By 1908, Good Housekeeping featured sandwiches made with cream cheese, mustard, chives and minced pimentos.
However, cream cheese is missing from many traditional southern recipes. It was missing from those in my family, which contained generous amounts of mayo instead. Why might that be?
The early 20th century was an era of industrialization, and mass-produced food was part of that movement. Pimento cheese, with a cream cheese base, came along for the ride. By 1910, Minnesota and North Dakota grocers were running newspaper ads pitching “Pimiento Cheese—Something New.”
But two world wars changed palettes.
After World War II, the popularity of pimento cheese began to wane, and [it] disappeared from grocery store shelves. But somewhere along the line, Southern cooks took what originated as an industrial food product and started creating their own recipes for making it from scratch, in the process turning it into something truly delicious that is associated very closely with the South.
SeriousEats reports that before 1990, pimento cheese recipes were “rarely found in cookbooks.” But by 2011, pimento cheese was making its way into gourmet-dom:
In a recent issue of Bon Appétit, pimento cheese—a mix of grated cheddar, mayonnaise and diced pimiento peppers—oozed from a crock of macaroni and cheese. On Today and in newspapers nationwide, it has guest-starred in potato gratin at the hands of Matt and Ted Lee, two stewards of Southern food. At Costco, it’s been sold rolled into sushi… Such widespread iterations provoked Adam Rapoport of Bon Appétit to predict 2011 would be the “Year of Pimento Cheese” …
Reflecting a revival, of sorts, of its origins:
When it first appeared in the early 20th century, dainty pimento cheese sandwiches were served crustless at tea parties across the nation. They were regarded as a delicacy due to the high cost of cheese and pimiento peppers, then imported from Spain.
What are pimientos?
Pimientos are mild chili peppers sometimes called cherry peppers.
Agriculture was not immune from early 20th century industrialization. The Smith Lever Act formalized agricultural research and education in 1914. Farmers near Griffin, GA, began growing domestic pimentos in the teens.
Today, the nation’s largest pimento (or pimiento) pepper company is family-run and operates plants in North Carolina and California. The pimientos are grown domestically.
Contrary to what you might read, bell peppers are not the same thing as pimientos.
Essentials: quality, sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese.
Post-WWII traditional: use only cheddar cheese, pimentos and mayo.
Organic note: I don’t know of any organic pimientos. Of course, you can substitute organic cheese, but you truly want a sharp cheddar in the mix for the bite.
Pimento Cheese, the pate of the deep south
Pimento cheese is a quintessential southern delicacy, best made from scratch rather than purchased from industrial food manufacturers!
- Course: Side Dish
- Cuisine: American
- Servings: 8-12
- 1 poundextra-sharp cheddar (I use white Tillamook, made in Oregon, sometimes mixed with Beechers, made in Seattle)
- 4 ouncespepper-jack cheese (I use Tillamook)
- 4 ouncescream cheese cut into several pieces (Philadelphia, room temperature)
- 2 ouncesdiced pimentos (look in the canned vegetable aisle on a top shelf)
- 2 ouncesdiced peppadew peppers (usually found in antipasta deli bar – in a pinch, use Yancy’s Peppadew Cheese instead of the pepper-jack)
- 2 TWorcestershire sauce
- 1 TMayo (quality product such as Duke’s or Hellman’s – Not Miracle Whip!)
- Paprika(optional, sprinkle on top)
- 4 ouncesbacon crumbles (optional)
- 1-2 Tdark beer (optional)
- 1-2 Thorseradish (optional)
- 2green onions, diced (optional)
- Black and/or cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
- Coarsely grate the cheese.
- Add about ⅓ of the grated cheese to a large mixing bowl and lightly blend, followed by ⅓ cream cheese. Repeat until all the cheeses are blended. The mixture should be clumpy; you’ll need to push it around a bit with a spatula.
- Add the mayo and Worchestershire sauce. Blend slightly.
- Add the pimentos and peppadews. Blend; the mixture should now be partially creamy with clumps of cheese and peppers.
- Add optional ingredients to taste.
- Place the mixture in an airtight container. Refrigerate.
Let the pimento cheese sit at room temperature at least 20 minutes before serving. Serve with crackers or celery. Use as alternative for toasted cheese sandwich or hamburger topping. You’re limited only by your imagination. Enjoy!
I have only recently learned of Palmetto Pimento Cheese. Try some if you’re in/near South Carolina or Georgia.
Featured image: NY Times recipe