This orange spread is ubiquitous in the South, but offer it to someone who’s never been below the Mason-Dixon line and you’re sure to get a little side-eye. Known as “the caviar of the South,” but resembling nothing of the sort in mere appearances, pimento cheese is a mixture of shredded cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, pimento peppers and salt and pepper. Southerners swoon over the stuff and nearly faint when they find out their consummate loyalties don’t exist outside the region.
But what is pimento cheese? How do you serve it? How do you make pimento cheese? What are its origins? And does it really taste as good as everyone says? How did cheese, mayo and these weird jarred peppers cause such a stir? There are, as it goes with pimento cheese, many answers to each of these questions and some of them are hotly debated.
Pimento cheese is most often served as a spread alongside crackers. Some people prefer chips or celery, but some of us (the good ones) will fight for buttery Ritz crackers as the optimal accompaniment. It’s no surprise to see crustless pimento cheese sandwiches served at tea time or bridal showers, and it’s equally at home slathered on top of a hotdog or hamburger for a greasy indulgence. One can easily find it mixed into grits, mashed potatoes or deviled egg filling.
Depending on what region you visit or in whose home you dine, you can find anything from cayenne pepper to cream cheese to onions in your spread. In supermarkets, the list of potential additives is endless. In fact, there are as many possible additions as there are people to disagree, so you may want to try a few styles before declaring your favorite (if you haven’t done so already).
The best way to prepare pimento cheese is one thing on which most Southern chefs and cooks agree. At least so far as that homemade is better than store bought and freshly shredded is better than pre-packaged cheese shreds. Reasoning differs, but every chef I questioned about pimento cheese dutifully shreds their own cheese from large blocks of their favorite cheddar. Some still shred by hand, but most use a food processor. Freshness is key; pre-packaged shredded cheese isn’t as pliable as fresh and doesn’t mix as easily into spread. It doesn’t get as sticky, and the seasoned chefs swear they can tell the difference in blind taste tests. Pride in the prep work seems to be a popular reason, too, but you truly can tell the difference in the end product when you shred the cheese yourself.
The origins of pimento cheese are a bit murky, but it’s actually rumored to have gotten its roots in New York in the late 1800s from the introduction of the mass manufacturing of cheese and Spanish pimento peppers. They were combined in the early 1900s in Eva Green Fuller’s Up-to-Date Sandwich Book where she suggests combining pimentos with Neufchatel and seasoning it with salt before spreading the mixture onto a sandwich. Eventually, manufacturers produced this blend themselves and marketed it as “pimento cheese,” making it available from Minnesota to Oregon to Alabama.
Pimento cheese grew to become associated with Southern cuisine after the manufactured spread fell out of favor and disappeared from the supermarket shelves. Southern cooks decided to start recreating what originated as a manufactured food product in their home kitchens and somehow created the delicious spread we know today. It didn’t hurt that Duke’s mayonnaise was being made by C.F. Sauer’s (out of Richmond, Virginia) and farmers grew pimiento peppers in the South. And it took years, of course, for the spread to evolve into what it is now.
But is pimento cheese as good as everyone claims it to be? Well, that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Head to the market and grab yourself a block of cheese, good mayonnaise and a jar of pimentos. All it takes is a few turns of the food processor and a stir of the spoon; soon you’ll know for yourself just what all the fuss is about. They didn’t make a documentary about it for nothing.
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“Pimento Cheese: It’s A Southern Thing”. NPR, Wright Brian, January 17, 2007.
“Pimento Cheese, Please!”. Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, Nicole Lang and Cristophile Konstas, 2011.
“From Scientific Cuisine to Southern Icon: The Real History of Pimento Cheese”. Serious Eats, Moss Robert, Sept 4, 2014.
Special thanks to Travis Milton of Comfort in Richmond, VA and all the chefs and home cooks who shared their stories for this article.