Friday, April 13, 2012

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Not Unlike the Dude, Pimento Cheese Abides

Fundamentally, it just feels good in your mouth.
~ Ted Lee

Canned pimentos? Roasted red peppers? Miracle Whip? Mayonnaise? People get mighty particular about their pimento cheese — and profess dismay and horror over some of the variants out there. Pimento what? Pimento cheese? Oh, come off it. You know what pimento cheese is. I ate it as a kid in Missouri and it's so widespread that even the local Trader Joe's carries tubs of the stuff in sunny San Diego.

Early 20th century pimento cheese box, packed for A&P

Regardless of its modern geographic promiscuity, pimento cheese (or minnow or menner cheese or a few other pronunciations) is a touchstone of Southern eating. The spread has been around for a little more than a century and really got a boost when farmers around Griffin, Georgia began growing Spanish pimientos (we usually drop the second "i" in English) in the early 20th century. At its most simple, pimento cheese is a blend of shredded cheddar cheese, cooked red peppers or pimentos, and mayonnaise. After that, things get personal. Shredded or minced onion gets added. Garlic, pickle juice or relish, curry powder, cumin, cilantro, red and black peppers, Worcestershire sauce, and even liquor are not unheard of.

Mississippi pastry maven and chef Martha Foose politely disapproves: "Oh, I've seen so many affronts to pimento cheese through the years."

Foose and others, including Lisa Fain (Homesick Texan), Ted Lee (the bespeckled half of the Lee Brothers), barbecue pit master Carey Bringle, Robert Stehling of Charleston's Hominy Grill, and Jason "Oh, God, No" Alley of the restaurant Comfort in Richmond, Virginia are featured in the short film Pimento Cheese, Please! by documentarians Nicole Lang and Christophile Konstas.

For a look at what the stuff is, where it came from (New York what?), and what it means to some Southerners, check out the film:


Will said...

I have very fond memories of eating pimento cheese sandwiches with hot cocoa while ice fishing. Nothing like sitting on a five-gallon bucket on a frozen lake with a steaming cup of cocoa, a pimento sandwich, and a fifth of peppermint schnapps in your coat pocket. Oh, for simpler days.

Matthew Rowley said...

A fifth of peppermint schnapps, Will? You didn't by any chance, do this ice fishing in Wisconsin, did you? I spent part of one winter in and around Appleton where I was introduced to the showshoe, a combination of peppermint schnapps and brandy.

I too have great memories of pimento cheese. My mother disliked that particular cheese spread (port wine and cheddar was her deal), but the times I did have pimento cheese, it was because my father bought some and shared it with me. Mom either huffed in mock disgust at us or didn't find out we were gorging on the stuff in her absence.

I've got a block of cheddar in the fridge this very minute and a jar of Spanish piquillos just crying out to be put together. It's not quite the pimento cheese I grew up with, but it's pretty damn good. I'm going to have to try that cocoa combo. Cheers!

Will said...

Not Wisconsin, Nebraska. Sandhill lakes. Picture wind-swept tundra dotted with shallow ogallala aquifer-fed lakes. I remember the best fishing seemed to be on the most bitterly cold, windy days. -77windchill one time. That cheap schnapps came in handy.

Matthew Rowley said...

That's horrifying, Will. I recall nights so cold in Kansas City that pipes burst, cars wouldn't start, and the populace was warned not to venture out unless absolutely necessary and to bring in any animals, but -77 with windchill may trump even that. Yup, I'd prescribe schnapps (and plenty of it) to make it through those Nebraska winters.