The Special Decadence of Pimento Cheese
Sarah Brown knows exactly what’s right and exactly what’s wrong in the making of pimento cheese, specifically the sort that will send a shiver down your spine.
The day my Memaw told me my pimento cheese tasted like her Mama’s, I swear the heavens opened up and Granny smiled down.
Pimento cheese is a staple in Southern homes, church potlucks, and long days on the water. But there is proof positive that this thing we all swear is a quintessential Southern food actually originated in New York City in the late 1800s. My opinion, of course, is that when it migrated South, we perfected it.
I remember watching my Memaw take a fork and mash the whole pimentos in Homer Laughlin bowls. Those bowls now reside in my china cabinet. There’s one for each of my children. The pimentos would become a juicy pulp in the bottom of the bowl. Into the bowl would go fresh grated hoop cheese. She would use a thin wire cheese cutter to peel the cheesecloth and wax from the wedge’s edge. In went a healthy dollop of mayonnaise, followed by pepper and a dash of salt and sugar. I can hear the scraping of the bowl as the items became that delicious spread.
As a teenager, I realized my mother couldn’t make pimento cheese worth a dern. She’d tried and failed for almost 20 years. Hers was too runny, too sweet, too godawful to really be called pimento cheese. I decided I needed to learn how to make it when I was around 14. My parents always let us kids get in the kitchen and experiment. I think mostly it was because there were three kids, and one less food item to fix was quite fine by them. I don’t think my first batch was all that bad. My Daddy, the eat-anything Marine, tried it. He proclaimed Mom need not attempt and flop anymore. My Mom is a great cook. She had to be with all of us kids and a tight budget. Pimento cheese just wasn’t her thing. In fact, until I started making it, she wasn’t really a big fan of it.
She eyed my 22-year-old self and the bowl with the orange shreds and red specs. Then she tasted it, and won’t ever forget her guttural groan.That bowl of pimento cheese was the most naughty fun she’d had in a long time. From then on out, I became her educator in the kitchen. I kept two struggling single moms from Mississippi well fed on tight budgets. She never questioned me again. I may have been raised at Memaw’s apron strings and Justin Wilson on public television, but I was continuing my culinary education through the newly arrived Food Network.
My method is simple, it’s like Memaw’s. Hand grate sharp cheddar. I prefer Best Choice New York style sharp cheddar. Open a jar of pimento and dump it all in. I add a healthy dollop of Duke’s mayonnaise, some pepper, dash of some other proprietary secrets, and stir.
"Don’t ever put cream cheese in pimento cheese. It’s an abomination!"
Come on now, if I told you all that was in it, you’d be replicating it and making the millions I currently don’t. You stir until it’s the right consistency. Just how you get it that way is up to you. You may need more cheese, mayo, or whatever else. Then you leave it on the counter to let the ingredients marry into their special decadence. It’s a key step most forget in this age of modern refrigeration. Just let it sit for about 20 minutes, covered with the board you grated your cheese on. I promise in the over twenty years I’ve made it, nobody got sick. One also didn’t get sick after eating some I’d had in the fridge a month, but that’s neither here nor there.
Don’t ever put cream cheese in pimento cheese. It’s an abomination! It’s almost as bad as white shoes after Labor Day or hot pink bridesmaids dresses in January. Just don’t do it. I’m of the old school, as in Granny Holden school. JoAnn never put cream cheese in her pimento cheese and you won’t ever catch me either. My Granny was a spitfire. A pint-size hurricane. She’d come down from Glory and give me a verbal thrashing. I can’t have all that. Neither can you, trust me.
After I make my pimento cheese in a glass bowl, I store it in a plastic one in the fridge. It won’t last all that long, so even your beat-up Cool Whip bowl will suffice.