A bowlful of Southern comfort
Jeff Amberg; Food styling by Susan Fuller Slack, CCP
Few foods convey comfort like a bowlful of creamy pimento cheese. The late Bill Neal, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, chef renowned for his seminal work Southern Cooking (1985) referred to the iconic mixture as “the pâté of the South.”
Far simpler to prepare than French pâté, classic pimento cheese is a blend of shredded cheese, rich mayonnaise, and roasted pimientos (the correct spelling for the sweet red cherry peppers). This is the jumping-off point for cooks to add a signature touch with their favorite seasonings and other stir-ins.
Pimento cheese is a creamy, yet chunky blend with a mild, slightly tangy flavor and subtle sweetness that can be invigorated with chile heat. Spread it on benne wafers, biscuits, burgers, or sliced bread. Slightly warmed, it becomes a dip or sauce for cooked vegetables, pasta, or protein. Pimento cheese can enrich and add flavor to many dishes, including grits, mashed potatoes, biscuits, soup, scrambled eggs, or breakfast casseroles. The Southern staple regularly shows up in lunchboxes, at family suppers, football games, picnics, cocktail parties, and wedding receptions.
Pimento cheese sandwiches are a mainstay on the menu at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta. Packaged in small, green plastic bags (to reflect the champion’s coveted green jacket, perhaps), they sell for $1.50 apiece.
As funeral food, pimento cheese has a higher calling. A platter of pimento cheese sandwiches –– like fried chicken or deviled eggs — brings comfort to the bereaved, nourishing bodies as well as souls. Southerners love this quintessential comfort food and remember it from childhood; it was usually homemade.
In the early 1980s, novelist Edward Reynolds Price suggested supermarket pimento cheese was made “from congealed insecticides.” Back in the day, Northerners depended on store brand pimento cheese, if they consumed it at all, and that left much to be desired. The retail cheese blend was probably preservative-filled and bland. There is irony in this since pimento cheese originated in the Northeastern United States. A trendy Southern saying applies to pimento cheese: “I wasn’t born in the South, but I got here as fast as I could!” To track its obscure origin and rapid popularity, follow the trail across the Mason-Dixon Line to New York State, where American cheese-making began when Dutch settlers introduced dairy farming in the 17th century.
In 1872 in Chester, New York, dairyman William A. Lawrence experimented with soft, whole milk Neufchâtel — one of France’s oldest cheeses. He enriched the recipe with cream, developing a lush style of cream cheese. In 1885, the fancy, unripe cheese was registered under the Phenix brand as “Philadelphia Cream Cheese” because of the cachet the city’s name offered to fine foods. American Neufchatel, which is slightly lower in fat, was also produced.
The prototype for modern-day pimento cheese was Neufchâtel, or cream cheese blended with finely chopped pimientos and salt. The 1910 book Fancy Cheese in America discusses production and credits Mr. Frederickson of the Chr. Hansen Laboratory, Little Falls, New York, for the formula: mix 10 pounds American Neufchatel cheese with 1/4 to 1/2-pound red peppers that are ground to a pulp in a meat-mincing machine. The blend sold in 4-ounce glass jars, each topped with a paraffin paper disc and sealed screw cap; retail price: 15 cents. The book advised that it was “a very desirable lunch cheese … and is much used for this purpose.” Plain cream cheese was pressed into 4-ounce rectangular shapes and sold for 40 cents apiece.
Around 1910, “pimiento” cheese recipes began to appear. Spanish pimientos were becoming a new canned commodity in the United States, grown primarily in Georgia. Commercial operations were also in California, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida. Culinary historians believe this strong Southern presence helped pimento cheese take root in the South. It was embraced on every economic level and, to this day, has not fallen from grace.
By 1920, elegant pimento cheese sandwiches were appearing on Southern tea tables, but a more substantial version soon filled the lunchboxes of factory workers. Pimento cheese (now spelled without the extra “i” in pimiento when referring to the cheese spread) was advertised coast-to-coast.
The Holy Trinity of Pimento Cheese
Folks often have strong opinions on ingredients for pimento cheese, but there are three constants: cheese, mayonnaise, and pimientos. Whether from necessity or inspiration, Southern cooks often experiment with various types of cheese. During the first half of the 20th century, cheddar and red-rind hoop cheese became popular. Hoop cheese was a Southern pantry staple; it was creamy with a nutty flavor and available at most general stores.
Housewives were also making a cooked variety of pimento cheese with cubed Velveeta, pimientos, and ingredients such as Crisco, milk, cornstarch, and eggs. The mixture was chilled before serving.
The preferred flavor profile today is based on orange or white extra-sharp or sharp cheddar. A small amount of imported Parmesan, creamy Gouda, nutty Gruyère, Monterey Jack, or blue cheese can be added for an enhanced flavor profile. Firm, chilled cheese can be easily shredded (for texture) or grated (less texture) on a four-sided box grater or in the food processor. Never use pre-shredded cheese.
Pimiento (Capsicum annuum) is the most important ingredient; without it, all you have is cheese spread. First cousin to the sweet bell pepper, the heart-shaped pimiento is from Spain. Fresh pimientos can be difficult to find; check at farmers’ markets. Roasted, peeled red bell peppers are a good substitute.
Mayonnaise is the final ingredient and seals the deal by binding all the ingredients together. The biggest debate might be which mayonnaise to use: Duke’s, homemade, or Hellmann’s. It is a matter of personal choice, but Duke’s is a local favorite, created in 1917 by Eugenia Duke of Greenville, South Carolina. That year, she sold chicken salad and pimento cheese sandwiches to hungry soldiers at Camp Sevier, a National Guard Training Camp. It is possible that Eugenia used Kraft’s brand new pimento cheese in tins, but the distinctive-tasting mayonnaise is what jumpstarted her business.
The now-famous pimento cheeseburger is said to have begun here in Columbia at the Dairy Bar on South Main Street. Owner J.C. Reynolds, a University of South Carolina graduate, created it in the early 1960s. Elvis Presley’s favorite burger in Memphis was The Palm Beach Burger, slathered in pimento cheese.
Susan’s Basic Southern Pimento Cheese
Any extra liquid from the roasted red bell pepper or pimiento will enhance the cheese mixture. To turn up the flavor profile a few notches, select three or four of the Pimento Cheese Mix-ins on the list following this recipe.
2 cups shredded sharp or extra-sharp orange cheddar
2 cups shredded sharp or extra-sharp white cheddar
About 1 cup high-quality mayonnaise, of choice
1 (7-ounce) jar chopped pimientos or 1/2 cup roasted, peeled, chopped, fresh pimiento, or red bell pepper (can increase amount if desired)
Pinch sea salt and dash of freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a medium bowl, stir all ingredients together to blend. Add any of the mix-ins, as desired. Scrape pimento cheese into a glass bowl and cover with a tight-fitting lid; refrigerate several hours or overnight to develop the flavor. Mixture keeps about one week. Makes about 4 cups. Recipe can be cut in half.
Pimento Cheese Mix-ins
Add two or three of the following ingredients, in amounts suggested or to taste, and create your own signature pimento cheese recipe.
Sliced green onion
Grated sweet onion
Finely minced garlic clove
Roasted, mashed garlic clove
Chopped green olives
2 to 3 teaspoons bourbon, to taste
1 to 3 teaspoons cider vinegar or lemon juice, to taste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
1 or 2 dashes smoked paprika (or mild pimentón)
Cayenne or hot sauce, to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons stone-ground or Dijon mustard
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano, Asiago, Clemson Blue Cheese, or cream cheese
1/2 cup Greek yogurt or sour cream (in place of 1/2 cup mayonnaise)
3/4 cup toasted, chopped pecan halves
Cooked, chopped smoky bacon
Finely chopped okra pickles
Finely chopped Bradford Family Watermelon Rind Pickles
1 or 2 chopped, hard-cooked egg(s)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
Pimento Cheese Sandwich Add-ons
Here are a few add-on toppings to embellish your next pimento cheese sandwich; choose one or two of the following:
Fresh, ripe tomato slices
Crisp bacon slices
Crisp pieces of lettuce (butter or leaf)
Handful of arugula
Sweet onion slice
Slice of fried green tomato or pickled green tomato
Shaved country ham or thin-sliced prosciutto or ham
Sweet, smoky bacon marmalade
Carrie Morey’s Cast-Iron Pimento Cheese Dip
Carrie Morey owns Callie’s Charleston Biscuits and Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit in Charleston and Atlanta, Georgia. She loves to serve this cheesy dish for Cinco de Mayo or during the summer season. Carrie uses a cast-iron skillet, which can also be used for serving. Use the regular pimento cheese if less spicy is desired. Carrie also makes the most amazing deviled eggs by mixing 3/4 cup spicy pimento cheese and 1/2 cup mayonnaise into the yolks of 12 hard-cooked eggs.
8 to 12 ounces fresh chorizo sausage, casing removed
1 container (16 ounces) Callie’s Pimento Cheese or Callie’s Fiery Charleston Pimento Cheese
1 container (16 ounces) pico de gallo or salsa
Optional garnish: fresh cilantro leaves and chopped red bell pepper
Crumble the chorizo into a cast-iron skillet. Using a fork, break up the sausage and cook for 6 to 8 minutes or until browned. If the sausage seems greasy, spoon off the fat. Stir in the pimento cheese and salsa. Cook over very low heat until the cheese is melted and the dip is heated through. Serve hot from the skillet with tortilla chips. Recipe from Callie’s Biscuits and Southern Traditions: Heirloom Recipes from Our Family.
Curry & Pimento Tea Sandwiches
Early 20th century cookbooks often called for low-calorie American Neufchatel cheese or cream cheese in pimento cheese spreads. Cooks also added chopped nuts, olives, dried and fresh fruits, and celery. This is my modern version of a pimento cheese spread from Sandwiches by Mrs. S.T. Rorer (1912). The original calls for Neufchatel cheese, pimientos, curry, olive oil, tomato catsup, and desiccated coconut. This mixture, like the original, can be spread between slices of quality, thin bread such as Pepperidge Farm. After making the sandwiches, trim off the crusts and cut into “fingers.” The spread is also tasty on crackers and pita wedges.
2 (8 ounce) bars Neufchatel
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1-1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1 (2 ounce) jar drained pimientos or 1/4 cup chopped, roasted
red bell pepper
1 thin green onion, chopped
1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons chutney
2 to 3 tablespoons golden or dark raisins
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped, toasted almonds
Dash sea salt and white (or black) ground pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste
In a bowl, mix cream cheese, lemon juice, and curry powder. Stir in pimientos and remaining ingredients. Cover and chill 1 hour or until serving time.
Fried Green Tomato Stacks
Fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese — could any foods be more Southern or delicious? Fry the tomatoes in a cast-iron skillet for a nice crust. Serve each cheesy tomato slice as an appetizer or salad over greens like arugula. Drizzle with vinaigrette; garnish with chopped, toasted pecans. Or, top fried tomato and pimento cheese rounds with crisp bacon; serve on round brioche or Hawaiian buns.
1/4 cup buttermilk
About 2/3 cup stone-ground cornmeal
2 large, firm green tomatoes, each cut in 3 (1/2 to 3/4-inch-thick) slices
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil or other quality oil
About 3/4 cup homemade pimento cheese (seasoned with minced shallot or onion, Worcestershire, Dijon mustard, and hot sauce), or quality store-bought
Preheat oven to 325 F. Put buttermilk and cornmeal in separate shallow bowls. Dip both sides of tomatoes in buttermilk and then cornmeal. Put on a baking sheet and season well. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Fry half the tomato slices until crisp and browned on each side, about 2 minutes. Add a little more oil if needed. Keep warm in the oven while frying the remaining tomatoes. Spread a small mound of pimento cheese over each warm tomato slice. Serve at once as an appetizer, with salad greens, or in a sandwich. Serves 4 to 5. Recipe adapted from Fondues & Hot Pots (Susan Slack).