Pimento cheese is the southern snack. As best as I can tell from my limited research, it does not exist above the Mason-Dixon, except in the homes of southern expatriates. To those of us who were raised on it from an early age, it evokes thoughts of home, family, and everything that is right about being from the South. To those who were deprived of this treat in their childhood, it’s just weird. In other words, it’s an acquired taste.
Pimento cheese exists in many forms, and is celebrated everywhere from fast food meccas (The Varsity) to “fancy” restaurants (South City Kitchen) to country clubs (Augusta National). In its lowest form, it is mayonnaisey orange slop packaged and sold in groceries as a sandwich spread. This is pimento cheese spread, not to be confused with authentic pimento cheese. It contains most of the correct ingredients, but it lacks the handmade southern care that is a necessity in good pimento cheese. I am not an elitist or stickler for authenticity, but this is where I draw the line. Good pimento cheese is not mass produced.
Now that we’ve established what it isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. Pimento cheese was likely “invented” as cheap protein dish during the Great Depression. Its three key ingredients are cheese, pimentos, and mayonnaise. Typically, the cheese used is a sharp cheddar, but other cheeses may be used in place or in conjunction with cheddar. The pimentos may be canned and diced, or they may be fresh. And the mayonnaise can be homemade, Duke’s, Hellmann’s, or Miracle Whip, though this can be a point of contention with some (Southerners are loyal to their brand of mayo). Everything else is totally dependent on personal preference, taste, and experimentation. That’s the beauty of it. While we all love pimento cheese, we don’t all love the exact same dish.
Recently, the Head Southerner showed me an article in Garden & Gun celebrating pimento cheese. The recipe contained in the article ignited a hankering in my gut. It looked pretty good, but my personal favorite is my grandmother’s pimento cheese. If there is a family gathering involving more than four people at her house, pimento cheese and crackers will be served prior to the meal, and it will all be gone before the meal is served. So I decided to make both my grandmother’s recipe and the Garden & Gun recipe, and to allow a few friends to weigh in on which was “better”. (Remember-Personal preference is really all that matters here.)
The Garden & Gun recipe is from the Sarah O’Kelley, the chef at the Glass Onion (Charleston, S.C.) The experimentation here is the cayenne and the green onion. I had no doubt that the cayenne would work well, but I’ll admit I had my doubts about the onion. Even before I had let the others taste, I knew this recipe would be filed away as a keeper. My only edit would be to either increase the amount of cheese or decrease the amount of mayo in the mix.
Garden & Gun Pimento Cheese
- 2 cups sharp orange cheddar (grated)
- 1/2 cup Duke’s mayonnaise (no substitutions)
- 1/2 cup pimentos, drained and chopped
- 1/4 cup green onion, chopped, using both the green and white parts
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp cayenne
- Dash of Tabasco
Having never made my grandmother’s pimento cheese, I called my mother in search of the recipe. And I learned that like many great southern traditions, there is no formal recipe, just a list of ingredients mixed till they taste “right”. So with a few pointers on approximate ratios and a warning that “it doesn’t always turn out right”, I entered the kitchen and gave it a shot. Keeping track of my pinches and dashes, I turned out a recipe for my grandmother’s pimento cheese. Mom – Please write it down for the future generations.
Me-Ma’s Pimento Cheese
- 2 cups extra sharp cheddar, grated fine
- 1/2 cup pimentos, drained and chopped
- 4 tsp mayonnaise
- 2-2 1/4 tsp white vinegar
- 2 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
For both recipes, just mix and serve, or stick them in the fridge and let the flavors meld together overnight.
As far as our informal taste test, my grandmother’s recipe was the unanimous winner. It had the consistency and flavor that we all associated with pimento cheese. Not to take anything away from the Garden & Gun recipe, but most people thought it had too much going on to be a simple pimento cheese snack and would be much better suited to put on top of a burger or something. For everyday crackers and celery, keep it simple with the pimento cheese.
Try them both out and let us know what you think, or show us the error of our ways and send us your best pimento cheese recipe or memory.Head of Southern Food Engineering Ben O.