"Authentic" Pimento Cheese

By Robert F. Moss

People get passionate about pimento cheese. It's been called the "Pâté of the South" and "Carolina Caviar." It's the kind of thing that Southerners get all misty eyed remembering from their youths and Yankees get all wondrous and rapturous about when they discover it.

Like other foods that stir diners' passions--barbecue, for instance--pimento cheese can also stir up a lot of disagreement. It's the kind of thing that people quickly harden into a "my way or the highway" kind of mentality about. In fact, every single ingredient can be debated.

The base of just about every pimento cheese recipe you see today is three-part: cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos. But, do you use cheddar, white cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, Parmesan, cream cheese, or Velveeta (or a combination of several of these)? Do you grate the cheese finely or leave it in big ole chunky shreds?

You would think the pimento part would be fairly straightforward, but as I discussed a few days ago, it's not clear whether fresh or canned peppers would actually be more authentic.

And what about the mayonnaise? Nan Davis of Oxford, Mississippi, who won the Southern Foodways Alliance's Pimento Cheese Invitational in 2003 with a recipe she learned from her Aunt Lella. As Davis recalls that when Lella taught her the recipe, "She started with 'Well, first you make the mayonnaise'. I interrupted her and said that I was not going to make homemade mayonnaise, just to give me the proportions on the cheese, pimentos, and spices. There was a long pause and then she said 'Well, you might as well not bother'". Davis has used homemade mayonnaise ever since.

One of my favorite pimento cheese versions of all times is that of Sarah O'Kelley of the Glass Onion here in Charleston. The Glass Onion is a die-hard farm-to-table, fresh local ingredients kind of place, but O'Kelley is insistent on using store bought mayo for her pimento cheese. "You must use Duke’s brand,”O'Kelley told Garden & Gun magazine. "Duke’s has no added sugar and more egg yolks."

Ready for SamplingI'm partial to Duke's Mayonnaise myself, perhaps in part because I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, where Eugenia Duke first began making her no-sugar mayonnaise in 1917, and the yellow-labeled jars were omnipresent.

Once you get the first three ingredients in the mixing bowl, the concoction becomes a palette for your culinary creativity, and what each cook adds from there is what makes their "special" pimento cheese recipe so special. �Black pepper, cayenne, jalapeños, lemon juice, onion, bacon, pecans, hot sauce, garlic powder, mustard, cider vinegar, and celery seeds are just a few of the things you might see adding a little zip or kick or twist.

Or, You Could Gussy it Up a LittleWhen next summer rolls around I plan on going all lardcore and making my pimento cheese with fresh, fire-roasted pimentos, handcrafted hoop cheese, and homemade mayonnaise from Southern-sourced oil (maybe I'll even press it myself from locally-grown soybeans.) Until then, here's the standby recipe I'm going with for holiday parties and other family gatherings.

Pimento Cheese

8 Oz. sharp yellow cheddar (or 4 oz. sharp cheddar and 4 oz. aged white cheddar)
1/2 cp. Duke's mayonnaise
1/2 cp. pimentos from a jar, drained and chopped into 1/4-inch bits
black pepper
pinch of salt
1/4 cp. diced green onion
1 t. dried mustard
1 t. freshly-squeeze lemon juice
1/4 tsp. cayenne

Grate the cheddar. �Lately I've been using the fine holes on my grater, but (yes, Janet) you could use the larger ones if you prefer big shreds instead. �Put the grated cheese in a large mixing bowl and stir together all the ingredients. �Start with a little less than a half cup of mayo and add a little more once you have everything else mixed in to make sure you get the right consistency--I like mine to be thick but still loose enough to spread easily, and the 1/2 cup of mayo will usually do it. ��
I like to make my pimento cheese the day before I serve it so it has a good night in the fridge to let everything merge and meld together. �You can serve it immediately, though, in a pinch.
Lately, I've gone for mustard and black pepper for a little zip, cayenne to add a subtle bit of heat, and lemon juice to brighten it all up. �But, there are a hundred different things you could use instead and come up with a similarly satisfying spread, so here's your chance to get creative.

How to serve pimento cheese once it's made is a topic for several more posts, but you can get all fancy and spread it on little toast points (see glamor shot above), or just serve it in a bowl with some crackers around it, or--as usually ends up happening to me--simply leave it in a plastic container in the fridge and scoop out a couple of spoonfuls here and there until it's gone before you get a chance to serve it at any sort of gathering.

It's good stuff.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.