Of all the sandwiches in all the states in all the world, pimento cheese has to …
Here’s what I’m trying to say. Pimento cheese is good on white bread — we know this. Pimento cheese was all but designed for white bread, about which I will elaborate more in a moment. And pimento cheese tastes good on a biscuit, because come on, what doesn’t taste good on a biscuit? And frankly, the fact that pimento cheese tastes good in the first place hardly stops the presses. Pimento cheese is made of shredded cheese, lightly flavorful peppers and spices, and mayonnaise, for crying out loud. Shredded cheese, lightly flavorful peppers and spices, and mayonnaise would taste good on burnt toast, on gluten-free crackers, on kelp.
Pimento cheese would taste good on drywall.
Yet, once upon a time, I wasn’t sure about pimento cheese. But I’m here to tell you: Once you’ve put pimento cheese on a … well, hold on a minute. I don’t want to give it away in the first little bit. So let me start with the true story of pimento cheese, which is itself full of surprise and delight. Then I’ll tell you how it stole my soul and my identity, and why I’m glad about it.
The first thing you need to know about pimento cheese is that long before it became a Southern, rural, working-class icon — Carolina caviar, some call it — its history was not Southern. And it was not rural. And it was decidedly not working class. So, for just a moment, lay aside that tub of vibrant orange goo, and let me tell you what I’ve learned about pimento cheese and how it got here.
• • •
I did my research by going directly to the source. Not my grandma — my grandma was born in West Virginia and spent her life cooking brisket in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and her grandma was born in the shtetls of Poland, so I was not, you might say, born to pimento cheese. But if you want to learn about pimento cheese, you’ve got to go to somebody’s grandma, so I went to the grandma of Emily Wallace, and Emily Wallace got her master’s degree in pimento cheese.
OK, the second half of that last sentence was mostly a stretch. Though Wallace learned her pimento-cheese recipe from her grandma, I stuck with Wallace herself, and I believe the spirit of her grandma informs Wallace’s story and what you’re reading now. That whole thing about Wallace’s master’s degree, I readily admit, is an exaggeration, but only the slightest possible exaggeration. Wallace actually does hold a master’s — in American Studies — from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And the title of her thesis was “It Was There for Work: Pimento Cheese in the Carolina Piedmont.”
• • •
Wallace met me at Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, where they make a pimento cheese on toast that, if it’s not to die for, that’s only because you probably want to stay alive to eat another one later on. Between her cheerful conversation and her detailed thesis, I now know about as much as a body can know about pimento cheese — and the humble pimento at its root. If I don’t tell you otherwise, the next bit of information all comes from Wallace or sources she supplied.
Until 1908, the United States got its pimentos — a close relative of the bell pepper — from Spain, in cans. Pimentos got to Europe in the first place, not unlike tomatoes, when Columbus brought them back from the New World. Eventually, farmers started growing them in California, and soon in Georgia, which took over the industry in the 1920s. By the 1960s, Georgia was the Pimento Capital of the World, with Southern states growing 90 percent of the nation’s pimentos. Eventually, California largely took the industry back over, though Moody Dunbar, the nation’s largest canner of pimentos, has production facilities in both California and North Carolina. (Moody Dunbar says “pimientos,” by the way; whether you spell it with the “i” or without, either is correct.)
As for combining pimentos with cheese, Wallace cites the 1867 Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book as urging cooks to combine grated cheese with butter, and to mix in red pepper “to protect fresh cheese from flies.” Despite that early Southern claim to the stuff, Wallace believes a 1910 book, Fancy Cheese in America, contains the first straightforward pimento cheese recipe. You were meant to mix Neufchâtel cheese with minced red peppers, and the recipe apparently came from a Danish guy in Little Falls, New York. So the pimento got here in 1908, and pimento cheese was a Northern delicacy by 1910.
What’s more, despite early recipes and an early leadership in pimento production, the rural South did not originally identify with the pimento-cheese sandwich. Pimento cheese in its earlier form had a lot more in common with cucumber sandwiches than barbecue sandwiches. It was considered a delicacy — and, in some situations, still is. As recently as 2013, Augusta National Golf Club profoundly disturbed its members when it messed with the recipe of the pimento cheese sandwiches it serves at the Masters.
• • •
It wasn’t until the late 1930s that people began thinking of pimento cheese as a working-class food, and from there comes the title of Wallace’s thesis: “It Was There for Work.” Wallace came to pimento cheese in something of a roundabout way. A Smithfield native, she got her recipe from her grandmother: “It called for cider vinegar and mustard,” she says. Wallace got to know that recipe well when she lived in Chicago, where, she says demurely, “You couldn’t get pimento cheese as easily as you can now.” So she made her own, which made her plenty of Chicago friends. This was long before Southern cuisine had taken the country by storm, before Adam Rapoport of Bon Appétit magazine predicted that 2011 would be the Year of Pimento Cheese. This was back when pimento cheese was still just pimento cheese.
Anyhow, Wallace came back down to North Carolina in the mid-aughts for graduate school and refilled her refrigerator with tubs of pimento cheese made by Star Food Products in Burlington. Then she took a food-writing course, which got her thinking about those containers of pimento cheese in her fridge. “I wrote [Star Food] a glorified fan letter,” she says — and ended up documenting the company for her thesis.
Companies like Star Foods, Wallace learned, provided two vital outlets in the 1920s and beyond: one was inexpensive sandwiches that the new class of industrial textile workers could buy from carts or in cheap restaurants near factories; the other was a place for women to not only work, but also — because they centered on cooking — to create businesses. Many companies that made pimento cheese, Wallace writes, got their start in home kitchens, allowing women to earn money in the privacy of their own homes before it was seemly for them to work elsewhere.
Pimento cheese expanded along with industrial textiles in the Piedmont. Star Foods still sells pimento cheese from its Burlington headquarters, and not just the regular, mind you — Star treats its pimento cheese the way Glenthisorthat treats its Scotch. You can get Star Private Stock Pimento Cheese Spread, and if the boss is coming over, you can even go wild and get Star Private Stock Gourmet Pimento Cheese Spread. And Ruth’s Salads, in Charlotte, is one of the largest producers of pimento cheese in the Southeast, manufacturing some 45,000 pounds of the spread per week. And Stan’s in Burlington, like Star, makes 25,000 pounds.
And nobody needs to tell you this, but 80 percent of that pimento cheese stays right here in the South, with the Carolinas being the biggest market, and the Triangle area and Charlotte being the two largest markets in the country. And this was all going on long before Rachael Ray put it on burgers with bacon and acted like she’d done something.
OK, then. Cool history, and unlike many of its somewhat exaggerated claims on food items, the South — especially North Carolina — can make absolutely legitimate, even indisputable, claims on pimento cheese. Pimento cheese is Southern. It’s the South.
• • •
I found my way to North Carolina in 1992, glad to be here but secure in my identity as a bony-headed Jewish guy from Cleveland. Did I fall for biscuits? I did. Country ham? Lord, have mercy. Barbecue? I have well-researched opinions that go on for days.
Still, to me, pimento cheese raised childhood memories of the neighbor lady who had moved to the suburbs in from the farm, not out from the city; her orange-stuff-on-isosceles-triangles-of-Wonder-Bread sandwiches made a scary-looking but perfectly adequate lunch when Mom wasn’t home. Soon after I arrived in Raleigh, of course, it became evident that pimento cheese meant something more down here. And the more I learned, the more I enjoyed, especially the resistance, by wise natives, of foodie attempts to glamorize the spread. I frequent, for example, a Raleigh downtown eatery that serves a delicious grilled pimento-cheese sandwich. I ask Dave, the owner, about any special ingredients.
He doesn’t even try to hide his scorn. “I can’t give away our recipe,” he says, fetching from the kitchen a half-gallon tub, playfully holding his hand over the label, showing only the words “fresh salad.” He snorts about attempts to overcomplicate a pure comfort food like pimento cheese. “I have a guy who comes in here and plays ‘Portlandia’ with me,” he says, rolling his eyes at the persnickety questions about every ingredient and its provenance. He holds up his industrial-size tub.
“This was recommended to me,” he says, “by the personal chef of … [megadistributor] U.S. Foods.”
Which, of course, only makes the sandwich better. If a longtime producer like Star Foods wants to make “gourmet” pimento cheese, who’s going to criticize them? That’s unironic gourmet, and more power to them. But if some post-post-everything chef starts making a pimento cheese sandwich with cheese from hormone-free milk from free-range cows fed on organic grass, and mayonnaise made from eggs each with their own informed-consent decree releasing custody signed by free-range chickens, and served on an artisan loaf of some damned thing, somebody needs to get slapped, and if it’s Rachael Ray, well then, that’s how it’s going to have to be.
Artisan pimento cheese begins to approach artisan peanut butter or artisan paper towels. At some point you have to stop.
Pimento cheese is in a good place. It is — and should remain — the bowling shirt of Southern comfort foods.
And once I learned a bit of its past, who could blame me for not just accepting pimento cheese but learning to love it? So I tried it hither and yon. It works fine on store-bought bread and crackers but also on bakery-fresh challah, the sweet bread Jewish families use for Shabbat. It tastes good on matzo, the dry, crumbly cracker we eat during Passover. Matzo isn’t that far off from drywall, which I already mentioned.
So you know where this is heading, right?
It’s a food, which means it has a recipe. It’s going to have pimentos, and it’s going to have cheese, but you can kinda mess with the mayonnaise as a binding agent. Neufchâtel cheese, that original recipe mentioned. Which, come to think of it, is almost cream cheese, which Wallace says cooks sometimes use.
At which point — uh-oh. Because sooner or later you’re going to have to put pimento cheese on a bagel.
And then it’s all over. Pimento cheese on a bagel tastes just as good as pimento cheese on anything else. Where I grew up, the only bright orange thing on a bagel was supposed to be deli-counter lox. And now, and now … I’m not saying I’d choose pimento cheese over some lox and a schmear, but I’d have to think about it. And once you have to think, change has occurred on a molecular level. Decades of Northeast identity — deli-counterculture? — go into the attic with the winter coats and Indians caps. Once pimento cheese has displaced cream cheese, just face it. You’re here for the duration.
And by “you,” of course, I mean me. Personal to “Mom in Cleveland”: You can clean out my room. I’m never coming back.