Wednesday, August 13, 2008

very cheesy

We post about holiday candy around here, so why not other food stuff? Truth is, while I like cooking (and eating) I don't necessarily find much to write about when it comes to food, aside from nostalgia, holidays or cultural angles. I know there are loads of sites out there that specialize in it- I enjoy reading them.
Recently, a good friend (hi Matt!) moved to CA, and one of the things that he misses about the South is the food. In fact, one particular item came up in recent conversation: Pimento Cheese. Those of you who live outside of the South or not raised here may not have ever heard of it. And quite frankly I never really gave it much thought as a cultural food item until recently. Pimento cheese is a summertime Southern staple; and most people eat year round. It used to be the stuff you would find in between small triangular slices of bread at church socials or on picnics. In fact, one of the most memorable picnic I was on consisted of deviled eggs, cold fried chicken, pickles and pimento cheese sandwiches. Quite excellent.

I have several books on "regional foodways"- which is historian speak for food traditions particular to a certain part of the country. Most of them about Southern foodways are chock full of fascinating accounts of everything from spoonbread to grits, but very few of them discuss pimento cheese. What is pimento cheese? Quite simply, it is a mixture of shredded cheese, pimentos and mayo- with some seasoning which usually differs from place to place. It's not quite as famous outside the South, as say BBQ- but it is a part of everyday life in the South like BBQ. You can usually find some in the grocery store (a favorite brand of mine is Ruth's) near the deli meats, but a lot of people have family recipes handed down through the generations. It's most famous incarnation is perhaps at the Master's tournament in Augusta, GA, where it has been on the club menu forever.

It's origins are difficult to pin down, but many food historians agree it was a locally developed food that took on regional popularity in the very early 1900s. Mostly a family farm concoction, pimento cheese spread became even more popular in the rural and developing south because it was inexpensive, made from widely available pantry items, and it kept well. In the hot summer months, that became a particular necessity. Family cooks could make a batch of it, seal it in a crock and keep cool- well however they could keep it cool. (I've actually seen a "stream" fridge- several flat pieces of slate rock conformed into a box on the side of a moving stream, which kept the contents of the "box" cool for a long period of time. These were quite common in the 1800s and early 1900s.)

Pimento cheese spreads started to appear in corner markets and available in Southern diners sometime after 1915-1920. Events, such as the boll weevil devastation of cotton crops during this time, and the migration of many farm families to textile mills in the south, may have lead to it's appearance in mill grocery stores and available as inexpensive lunches for mill workers. The Great Depression a decade later certainly didn't hamper the appeal of a cheap lunch. Many places could offer a very inexpensive pimento cheese sandwich and an RC Cola without breaking the bank. With the growth of supermarkets in the South, it also became readily available in processed, premade spreads in glass, then plastic tubs.

Through the years, the spread endured and found it's way into more places than the cheap sandwich. It's now a fairly common item to see in Southern homes. You will see pimento cheese resting comfortably on dainty sandwiches at upper crust tea parties as well as on celery on kid's lunch plates. It's now made with all kinds of variations from jalapeno to a "lite" version. It's as rarified as it is rural. Many families swear by their own recipes. Homemade pimento cheese is the stuff of legend in the South, and you will find that there are as many ways to "season" it as well as things to eat it with. It's a great snack on Ritz Crackers and celery.

Many people love to slather some on a Hamburger (especially while it is still on the grill), and one of my favorites is to add it to a hot dog. In fact, there are very many regional restaurants and burger joints that feature it prominently on the menu in such a way; for example The Varsity in Georgia and The Beacon Drive in South Carolina. Some more adventurous things I've tried is a pimento cheese corn fritter- sort of like a hush puppy with melted pimento cheese in the middle, and a glob of pimento cheese on a BBQ sandwich in place of cole slaw- pretty good!

For me, the best way is the simplest- a grilled pimento cheese sandwich. Nothing fancy, just make it like you would a grilled cheese, add a pickle to the side and cold Coke and there you have melty, cheesy heaven on a plate. Back in the day, according to my granddad, a dime could get you that very same lunch at the lunch counter at the local Woolworth's.

You can make your own fairly easy:
Basic Pimento Cheese
Software (sorry Alton, picked up a habit from you):
16-oz block of sharp cheddar cheese
4-oz jar of diced or sliced pimentos
mayonnaise (preferably Duke's or Hellman's-Blue Ribbon in the West)
black pepper, salt
Optional: hot sauce, celery seasoning

Food processor

Grate the cheese in the processor and take out about half. Add the pimentos with out draining and a couple of large spoonfuls of mayo. Hit the pulse button a couple of times until mixed well. Then add the other half of the cheese, a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper and salt. I add a little hot sauce and celery salt to taste. Then pulse again, until mixture is well combined and creamy. You don't want gritty, but you also don't want soupy- just somewhat like a creamy spread mixture. (you may need to add more mayo- just eyeball it).

Now here is a step most people skip- put into a bowl and let it sit on the counter for a little while. 20 minutes should do. This will allow the cheese to soften further, but more importantly it will allow the flavors to meld. You can put it an airtight container in the fridge for at least several weeks, if it lasts that long. I like it simple, but you can search the net and find many, many variations on the basic recipe. For the grilled pimento cheese sandwich- add some bacon for a delicious addition!

Try it out, you will be presently surprised if you've never had it before. You can also read some other posts or articles about it here, here, here, and here. For variety, try out Bobby Dean's (son of Paula) recipe from Food network.

Stay tuned for more Shelf- we've got more coming, including DVD reviews, another contest and more!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.


ed said...

Interesting...I've never heard of the stuff, but it sounds like it might be worth a try. I visited Charleston once, but never saw it down there- 'course I wasn't looking for it either.

Stacy said...

Wow- I haven't seen 'Menna Cheese since I left AL- can't find it anywhere here in PA of course. Thanks for the recipe!

Matt said...

Awesome post, J.C. I'm so excited for the shout in the post, too. My favorite thus far has been the grilled pimento cheese with ham. The sandwich "lid" slides around a bit much, because the cheese doesn't get the chance to adhere, what with the ham in the way and all. Its messy, but good. Mmmm. You'll have to do Carolina sauce geography next.

J.C. Loophole said...

Ed- thanks for your comments- give it a try!
Stacy- if you have an Alabama spin on the recipe, let us know in the comments.
Matt- shout out (squared)! Yeah - the old slippery sandwich lid conundrum. I've found that if I spread a layer on both slices of bread and put the ham in the middle is stays better- but then again, the mess is half the fun. Look for more "cultural foodways" articles in the future!

Anonymous said...

I am amazed that you do not remember pimento cheese being a staple in your home when you were growing up? Another wonderful use for it is to warm it in the microwave and use it as a dip for chips. Mom

Stephen said...

Hellman's mayonnaise is called Best Foods here in the West.


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