Pimento cheese is truly a Southern staple

Published 1:51 am Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pimento cheese is truly a Southern invention. Basically, it is a spread of grated cheese, pimentos and a binding agent, most always mayonnaise, with seemingly infinite variations. It has been a staple of picnic baskets, lunchboxes, and afternoon snacks for nearly a century.

The pimiento is a long-red heart-shaped vegetable native to the Americas, which takes its name from the Spanish word for “pepper.” While mostly associated with olives, ham loaf, and pimento cheese, the little pepper is versatile: one member of its family is used to make paprika, and another variety of the pimiento tree yields allspice.

The spelling is also a mystery, and no one really knows when “pimiento cheese” began to drift toward the colloquialized “pimento cheese.” Some sources suggest already prepared pimento cheese was featured in Southern grocery stores as early as 1915. Pomona Products Company founder George Reigel, of Griffin, Ga., began canning Sunshine Pimentos in 1916, making it even easier for home cooks to whip, mash, stir, and blend their own versions of the spread.

There are as many recipes for pimento cheese as people who make it. Most agree that only sharp cheese will do for perfect pimento cheese. Variations come from a number of “secret” ingredients, including sugar, the Worcestershire sauce called for in Elvis’s favorite recipe, onions, garlic, jalapeƱo peppers, Tabasco sauce and cream cheese.

I have tried three different recipes this week and each had some of those secret ingredients. Perhaps the best pimento cheese spread is the one our mothers did in our youth. For me, there was nothing better than pimento cheese on soft white bread. Maybe it was so good because Mama made it for me.

Whatever you do, don’t buy the “congealed chemical kind ” (as someone has said) in the grocery store. Pimento cheese is easy and cheap to make and that is why it became so popular in Southern households. My favorite of the three I tried, was from Frank Stitt’s book, Southern Table, mainly because it used roasted peppers, which really gave the cheese a very different flavor. My husband liked Craig Claiborne’s recipe with the scallions and Worcestershire sauce. So my advice is to try all three. They were all eaten and gone very fast!

This one is from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table:

Miss Verba’s Pimiento Cheese

(Verba Ford oversees Stitt’s kitchen. It makes about 2 cups.)

1 pound sharp yellow cheddar

1/4 pound cream cheese, softened

1 teaspoon finely ground white pepper

3 large red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped

1/2 cup homemade mayonnaise, or best quality commercial mayonnaise

1 teaspoon sugar

Splash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional

Grind the cheddar in a food processor fitted with the grating disk, or grate it on the small-holed side of a hand grater. Transfer the grated cheese to a bowl, add the cream cheese, white pepper, bell peppers, mayonnaise, sugar, hot sauce, and cayenne, if using, and blend all together thoroughly. Refrigerate and serve chilled. (The spread will keep for several days in the refrigerator.)

This one is taken from Julia Reed’s book, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and other Southern Specialties.

Craig Claiborne’s Pimento Cheese Spread

Makes 10-12 servings

1/2 pound mild yellow cheddar or longhorn cheese

1/2 pound white aged sharp cheddar cheese

1 can (7 ounces) pimentos

1 cup chopped scallions, including green parts

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

6 drops Tabasco sauce

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Use a meat grinder, if possible, to grate the cheese, using the cutter with large holes. Otherwise, use the coarse side of a cheese grater.

Put the grated cheese in a mixing bowl and add half the juice from the canned pimentos. Dice the drained pimentos and add them along with the scallions.

Combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, and garlic and add to the cheese mixture. Add the Worcestershire, Tabasco and pepper and blend well. Serve at room temperature as a spread for crisp crackers and raw vegetables or use as a sandwich spread.

(Unused spread can be covered and kept in the refrigerator for several days.)

This one is from Julia Reed’s book also. Keith is a good friend of Julia. The recipe comes from Keith’s college roommate from Virginia.

Keith’s Pimento Cheese Spread

12 servings

1 block Cracker Barrel extra-sharp white Vermont cheese, coarsely grated

1 block Cracker Barrel extra-sharp yellow cheese, grated

1 cup freshly grated aged Parmesan

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 small jars chopped pimentos, drained

1 dash of juice from a jar of stuffed green cocktail olives

1 dash of fresh lemon juice

1 dash of Tabasco

1 dash of black pepper

1 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise

Combine all ingredients with a fork or wooden spoon and refrigerate for at least three hours.

Taste. If it needs more bite add more olive juice, Tabasco or pepper.

Note: The cheaper the olives, the better the juice. Don’t use too much or the recipe will be watery.

So there you have it: a recipe from Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia.