Southern Origins: Pimento Cheese

Southern Origins: Pimento Cheese
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Illustrations by Jing Li

I’m pretty sure I was a teenager before I figured out that the ruby-red-chunk studded, tangerine-hued spread adored by my mother—she slathered it on white bread, crackers, and celery, and sometimes simply ate it with a spoon—was pimento cheese, not pimeno cheese. The “t” was not enunciated in my house.

And even when I got the name correct, my body of knowledge concerning pimentos consisted entirely of the awareness that there was a small glass jar of floating cherry-colored, fleshy bits labeled as such stowed in the door of our fridge 365 days a year, every year. If you don’t know what pimentos are, they’re small sweet peppers, and the jarred ones have been roasted, skinned, and diced.

And this is important information, since they’re the key to pimento cheese. Some may argue the cheese is the main character; others will tell you that the binder (usually mayo with maybe a bit of cream cheese) is secretly the star. But I crown the pimento king of the ingredient list. It’s really the only ingredient that’s completely survived from the first incarnation of pimento cheese, which originated in New York State.

Yep. You read that right. Pimento cheese, sometimes called “the pâté of the South,” was not invented in the South. But we embraced it as no other region and, some might say, perfected it by transforming it into the version we all know and love. So I think you can keep it in your Southern foods lexicon with minimal guilt. Need proof? It’s continually deemed suitable for the mostly Southern concessions menu at The Masters golf tournament, one of the most “Southern” sporting events around.

To better explain the history of this dish that’s not from down here but beloved down here all the same, we asked Charleston, South Carolina food writer and culinary historian Robert Moss to shed some light on pimento cheese’s past.

Did pimento cheese originate in the South?

No—contrary to what most people assume. It originated in New York State’s Orange County in the late 19th century. The foundational cheese in the original version was cream cheese, an American variation of Neufchâtel cheese. Cream cheese manufacturers started mixing in pimentos, and this was the first pimento cheese. It was an industry-made product. People bought it already made and packaged. It grew in popularity all over the country, becoming a staple at diners and lunch counters as the filling for a quick, easy sandwich. People started making their own variations at home. The addition of cheddar and mayo (and often, replacing cream cheese with mayo) to create today’s most common pimento cheese seems to be a Southern thing, but how or when that happened is not totally clear. The thinking is that folks down here were grinding up hoop cheese and pimentos, and then added mayo to make it creamy, but that’s speculation.

When and why did pimento cheese become such a Southern food staple?

This is my theory: Pimento cheese (the cream cheese version) was a popular commercial sandwich spread all over until the 1950s when it started a decline. In the South, it had become a common item put out for luncheons, bridge clubs, and other gatherings. So for that reason, I think the South held onto pimento cheese, and people started coming up with even more homemade versions when the store version started leaving the shelves. But even down here, it lost its luster for a time. For a while, many Southerners shunned their food roots and dismissed many favorite dishes, including pimento cheese, as “low-rent.” In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Southerners started re-embracing foods from their childhood. We saw a nostalgic return to things like pimento cheese as Southern food writers and Southern chefs elevated it to a place of prominence. I think that is when its identity became more closely associated with the South, and it’s a great example of how food identity and trends change a lot faster than we think. Some want to trace Southern food back to the Civil War, but a few things we see as “super Southern” today—such as pimento cheese and sweet iced tea—really don’t go back that far in our region’s food culture.

There are many varieties of pimento cheese. In your opinion, what’s the “right” way to make it?

There are so many ways to make it. Some of the variations are minor, some major. There’s nothing wrong with adding cream cheese—that’s in its beginnings after all—but I prefer it with only mayo, and like many Southerners, I’m partial to Duke’s. Then you need shredded cheddar. I like using both sharp yellow and white cheddar for a color combo. And of course, it’s not pimento cheese without chopped pimentos. Sometimes I add a little extra stuff, maybe some onion, maybe some black pepper. Others like to add hot sauce. One tip is to go easy on the mayo; you want just enough to hold it all together. And my secret ingredient is a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, which makes it even better.