Monday, March 28, 2011

Creating a (New) Southern Icon, Part 2: Memories & Recipes

About a month ago I dug into the history of pimento cheese and the surprising fact that, despite its current status as the quintessential Southern food, it was actually invented by Yankees. For most of the 20th century, in fact, pimento cheese was popular nationwide and was largely an industrial food product, something that people bought at the store rather than made from scratch.

I left hanging the question of how this “up-to-date”, nationally-distributed food become so closely identified with Southern cooking while fading both from supermarket shelves and from culinary memory everywhere else in the country. In part it was because the post was already much too long and in part because I don't have nearly as much concrete evidence on that question as I do on the origin of the famous spread.

But, I need to give it a shot. I gave my best stab at it verbally last weekend when I was interviewed by Nicole Lang for her forthcoming documentary "Pimento Cheese Please!" (due out this fall), and here is a written version of it.

As best as I can tell, it's a two-fold answer. First, more than in any other region, Southerner cooks took an industrial product and made it their own, creating home recipes that turned it into something special. Second, and seemingly more important, is the function of the collective Southern memory when it comes to food.
Today, it is taken for granted by most cookbook writers that “real” pimento cheese is made from a combination of grated cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos. Hotly debated is which type of cheese to use—sharp cheddar, white cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, Parmesan, or even Velveeta (I use sharp cheddar for mine). And, whether the mayonnaise should be homemade or a specific store-bought brand (I'm a loyal Duke's partisan) and what other elements should be added for flavoring. Black pepper, cayenne, jalapeños, onion, bacon, pecans, hot sauce, garlic powder, cider vinegar, and celery seeds are just a few of the more common enhancements. You can find a few recipes here and there that call for the original cream cheese, but they're definitely in the minority.

These formulas for “real” pimento cheese is a rather recent phenomenon. If you judge from cookbooks, newspapers, and magazines, pimento cheese remained in most people's minds a manufactured product for most of the 20th century. Before the 1980s, it's hard to find any published recipes at all for making your own pimento cheese at home. There are plenty of sandwich and salad recipes that include pimento cheese, but it's treated almost exclusively as an ingredient you would buy at the store, not make from scratch as a standalone dish.

Now, I'm not saying there were no cooks in the South making their own pimento cheese at home. Far too many Southerners today have vivid memories of their family's homemade versions for that to be the case.

Audrey Parker Brooks, a newspaper columnist who grew up in Texas in the 1920s, recalled of her school lunches, “My mother made delicious pimento-cheese sandwiches from scratch. It was mixed with Mamma's own homemade salad dressing.” In Gadsden,  Alabama: Stories of the Great Depression, Robert Wilbanks recalls the sandwiches of that era, noting that, “very few ingredients were prepackaged . . . pimento cheese did not come from a store but was made at home by cutting and mixing 'hoop' cheese and pimentos from a jar.” Plenty of Southern cooks, it seems, were making their own pimento cheese from scratch. They just weren't making a big deal about it.

Substituting of grated cheese and mayonnaise for the Neufchatel or cream cheese from the original domestic-science versions may have been the turning point in creating what is today a Southern classic. The new availability of “hoop cheese” in Southern stores in the early part of the 20th century likely inspired some Southern cooks to use it instead of the softer cream cheeses in their pimento cheese concoctions. Grated cheese, of course, would need something to bind it together, so adding mayonnaise was a natural adaptation. From there, any number of additional enhancements—from onions and mustard to lemon juice and jalapenos—would add flavors and make the mixture more and more interesting.

But, good homemade recipes are only part of the story. An even larger factor appears to be the role of memory. In the 1980s, Southern writers capturing in print their memories of the pimento cheese sandwiches of their youth. Pimento cheese starts showing up in a lot of Southern novels, like Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987) and Clyde Edgerton’s Raney (1986). Before this time, pimento cheese was treated in print—when it was treated at all—as simply another food product you would buy at the store. In the last two decades of the century, Southern writers transformed it into, to use the phrase of Reynold Price, “the peanut butter of my youth—homemade by Mother.”

The cause of pimento cheese got a big boost from the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) in 2003 when it staged the Pimento Cheese Invitational as part of its annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. More than 300 entrants submitted recipes and accompanying essays capturing the memories that made the food special to them. The winning recipe, provided by local entrant Nan Davis of Oxford, called for grated cheddar and pimentos bound together by homemade mayonnaise and seasoned with onion powder, red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and a pinch of sugar. While the other two finalists used store-bought mayo, Davis insisted that only homemade would do. She called it “Lella's Pimento Cheese,” after her “very special aunt” Lella, who was famous for the pimento cheese sandwiches she reliably prepared any time there was a funeral, a family illness, or a church gathering.

The Pimento Cheese Invitational struck a chord with Southern food writers. In the wake of the event, dozens of recipes for pimento cheese that referenced the SFA event began appearing in Southern-themed cookbooks and magazines. In The Book Club Cookbook (2004), Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp described the Pimento Cheese Invitational and published the recipe of novelist Lee Smith, who had been a speaker at event, noting, “a traditional Southern food, pimento cheese is held sacred by southerners, in spite of being largely unknown outside the South.” In The Place Setting (2009), Fred Sauceman reprinted Nan Davis’s recipe and recounted the SFA event, noting, “They came with stories of red-headed aunts. Stories of surviving beauty school, of long-gone corner grocery stores. Memories of bridal showers and Epworth League meetings and lunch breaks at a North Carolina cotton mill. They came with remembrances of Meemaws, Mawmaws, and Grandmas. The substance that ties together all these recollections is pimento cheese.”

John T. Edge, the SFA’s Director, was the organizing force behind the Pimento Cheese Invitational, and he has his own personal connection to the food. In Southern Belly (2002) he writes, “In all my born days, I had never eaten a sandwich that tastes as good as the white bread-encased chicken salad and pimento cheese treats my aunt Ruth Barrett made. Trimmed of their crust, lavished with a thick smear of Duke's mayonnaise . . . for me, they were the ultimate evocation of care and comfort, a bland yet beatific blessing bestowed by my mother's only sister, my surrogate grandmother.” That's some powerful, personal stuff, and it shows how the affection for pimento cheese in the South is linked as much to the people who made it and the places where it was served as it is to the food itself.

But why in the South and not elsewhere in the United States? Conceivably, considering how popular pimento cheese was across the country in the 1930s and 1940s, plenty of people from Minnesota or Oregon should have fond childhood memories of the pimento cheese served by a grandmother or favorite aunt at one or another social functions.

Perhaps in the South the sort of social functions at which dainty spreads like pimento cheese were served—funerals, church gatherings, weddings, and receptions of all kinds—played a more prominent role in average daily life and, therefore, have a stronger hold on the memories of Southerners raised in the middle part of the 20th century. Perhaps it's because of Southern food writers like Edge and Sauceman, who look back at the traditions of their childhoods, document them, and celebrate them. Or perhaps its because of New Southern chefs like Louis Osteen and Bill Neal, who turned away from French haute cuisine and created updated, high-quality versions of the things they remembered eating as children, sweeping pimento cheese into the mix along with more traditional Southern foods like grits and okra. Quite likely, it's a little of all of these.

This is not to say that the modern day version of what might be called “high-end” pimento cheese is not a genuine Southern delicacy. One of my favorites is the spread Sarah O'Kelley makes at The Glass Onion here in Charleston. A Georgia native, she recalls her father's making her spicy pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread. Like most cooks, she is adamant about the ingredients, and her recipe keeps it simple: cheddar cheese and pimentos—both grated rather coarsely—along with a little chopped green onion and Duke's mayonnaise. It must be Duke's, O'Kelley insists (amen!), since it has no sugar and more eggs yolks for richness.

It doesn't seem like such a simple combination could be so strikingly delicious, but I vividly remember the first time I had it—as a part of a picnic spread at Middleton Place during the closing outdoor concert for the Spoleto Festival. “Be careful,” my hostess said as she passed the tray of crustless white bread sandwiches stuffed with a layer of orange spread. “That’s pimento cheese from the Glass Onion. You'll be hooked.”

And I was. They were rich, creamy, and exceptionally complex in flavor. I don't know how many of those tiny little sandwiches I managed to put away, but I do know that my midsection hurt long before the concert began and by the end of the first tune I was nearly prostrate on the grass.

In just the past year, New York City magazine writers and bloggers have hailed the arrival of pimento cheese, the “Southern comfort food,” to the Big Apple. The Tipsy Parson on Ninth Avenue now serves it with housemade crackers and deep fries it into fritters. Bobby Flay offers a pimento burger at his Bar American, while Arkansas-born Robert Newton wows Brooklynites with his “Southern snack tray” of deviled eggs, pickled okra, and pimento cheese at his new restaurant Seersucker.

Pimento cheese has finally arrived home in New York after a century-long journey, and it managed to improve itself considerably during its travels. Does it really matter that its Southern pedigree isn't terribly long? As Southerners, we've taken on pimento cheese as an item of our own and transformed it into a delicacy, and that's more than enough justification for me, at least, to consider it a (new) Southern classic.

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