For those not familiar with this odd but delectable creation, pimento cheese is traditionally (in the South, that is) a spread containing sharp cheddar cheese, pimentos, mayonnaise, and spices. Despite its reputation and popularity in the South, food historians (yes, it’s a thing) insist that while pimento cheese may have established its fame south of the Mason Dixon line, it is not a Southern creation. This little bit of revelation may have many Southern cooks saying, “What are y’all talking about?”
Known as the “Caviar of the South,” pimento cheese is a food that much like fried chicken or grits, has become a symbol of the Southern kitchen. Yet according to food historian Robert Moss, pimento cheese was created in Northern test kitchens after the introduction of another popular item, cream cheese, which first appeared after the Civil War in New York. Pimentos, or pimientos, were introduced at roughly the same time. The mild and sweet red Spanish peppers were used in many of the same dishes as their green counterpart the bell pepper.
Recipes for spreads and salads made with cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese and pimentos among other ingredients showed up in the late 1800s. At the turn of the century, supermarkets in the Midwest began promoting commercially-made pimento cheese as “Something New.” Southern markets followed shortly behind selling the jars of cream cheese mixed with chopped pimentos and a dash of seasoning. Whether it was developed in the North or not, Southerners were quick to claim it and make it their own.
Unlike pimento cheese’s humble beginnings, not many recipes call for the addition of cream cheese and most Southern cooks know it by the way their grandmothers and mothers made it – sharp cheddar, mayo (Duke’s is always a favorite), jarred pimentos, spices or none at all. Venture into Louisiana and you are likely to taste the kick of Tabasco. Atlanta PC lovers slather it on hot dogs and burgers. The pimento cheese burger has even made its way onto Northern menus where the popularity of the spread died out decades ago and today’s generations have never even heard of it outside Southern culinary territory. Perhaps this has something to do with Georgia pimentos.
While originally pimentos were an expensive imported item from Spain, Georgia farmers began growing and selling them in the early 1900’s, right around the time that pimento cheese was gaining popularity throughout the country. While it isn’t quite as popular of a crop these days, Georgia still happens to be known as the place to get the best pimento cheese sandwiches. Quite possibly the most controversial sandwich too. Just take a drive to Augusta, Georgia, in April to see for yourself.
Each year during the Masters, pro golfers are anxious to get their hands on the highly-coveted green jacket, while club patrons and onlookers
line up to for their own bit of green—the green-wrapped pimento cheese sandwich. Nothing fancy as would be expected at an establishment of this caliber, just two slices of white bread sandwiching the orange spread. All for a dollar and fifty cents. In 2013, however, this innocent lunch created headlines after a few bites. The beloved sandwich for roughly fifty years had changed.
A few years before, Nick Rangos, the pimento cheese maker for Augusta National for nearly forty years, was dropped, and the club gave their pimento cheese sandwich business to Wife Savers, the same chain that had made the club’s chicken sandwiches. Rangos refused to hand over the recipe, but after a lot of testing and a frozen sample of the original for comparison, his secret ingredient was discovered by the owner of Wife Savers. Just a few short years later, however, Augusta National changed their suppliers yet again, but this time without the original recipe. And it caused a bit of an uproar in the greens. The green wrappers, that is.
But life goes on, and so does the pimento cheese sandwich, which seems to have faded away from its origins and settled permanently in the South. Although the South may not be able to claim pimento cheese as a native, any Southerner can tell you it has laid down roots. Right onto our plates and into our hearts.
Sweet Southern Pimento Cheese Recipe
2 Cups coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 8 oz)
2 Cups coarsely grated extra-sharp white cheddar cheese (about 8 oz)
1 Cup finely chopped, drained pimentos or drained roasted red and yellow peppers from a jar
1/2 Cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
Grate cheese – Freshly grated cheese is best. Dice pimientos. Combine all ingredients and add salt and pepper to taste. Stir until well combined.
Spread over sourdough bread, add bacon and a tomato and fry for the best grilled cheese sandwich in the South!