The History of Pimento Cheese
Pimento cheese is a curious condiment. Most Southerners have fond memories of a loving aunt mixing up a batch for a church gathering, while Northerners haven’t the foggiest idea what pimento cheese even is. Affectionately referred to as “Carolina caviar” or “Southern pate,” it has been a Southern staple for well over 50 years. But pimento cheese is a fickle mistress. Despite the heritage it has built up for itself in the lower states — and the evident lack of recognition in the Northern ones — it’s quite surprising to learn that this recipe hails from New York.
If you are unfamiliar with this delicacy here are the basics: To make, simply mix up some mayonnaise, shredded cheddar cheese and diced pimientos…and you’ve got yourself some pimento cheese.
Since it’s served cold, pimento cheese is typically served as a dip or a condiment for sandwiches — perfect picnic fodder and family-gathering fare. I have asked people from all over the country about their opinion on this dish and the answers range widely from nostalgia to disgust and everything in between. The combination can either be delicious or quite off-putting if not mastered.
Processed food first hit the marketplace during the mid-1800s, revolutionizing the food industry ever since. Suddenly, food from across the world was available in America, making exotic ingredients more available to the masses. Canned oysters, meats, fruits and veggies were now readily accessible and were considered fashionable to entertain with.
Cream cheese entered the scene at the turn of the century (some say accidentally, but that’s a whole other story). Close to a decade after, we had the birth of another food manufacturing marvel, pimiento peppers, canned and shipped from Spain. The Americans dropped the “I” and it is now known as “pimento,” which we have also nicknamed cherry peppers.
It wasn’t long until these two ingredients were merged by housewives in pearls, and voila! The birth of the first pimento cheese. The first documented recipes starting popping up in as early as 1908 in Good Housekeeping and the Up-to-Date Sandwich Book.
How utterly fashionable – taking two modern and exclusive ingredients and combining into one. Spread some on sliced white bread (although you had to slice it yourself until 1928) and you’ve got the perfect tea sandwiches.
Cream cheese was first being mass produced around 1873 near Philadelphia. By the mid-1880s the vast majority of cream cheese was being produced in New York. New York was also a major import hub, making it quite easy to get access to those wonderful canned Spanish peppers. The accessibility of these ingredients is likely why we saw this recipe first appear here.
Everyone had fairly easy access to packaged cream cheese, but the pimento peppers were expensive to import. An industrious Georgian farmer saw an opportunity and started growing and distributing them in the U.S. Some say this is what brought the dish to the South, but when exactly hasn’t been able to be pinned down.
The recipe, and its culture even, was not only changed when it made its way South — it was improved. Getting a taste for pimentos, Southerners kept the idea and prepared it scratch-made and flavorful…basically more Southern!
While pimento cheese was being served at dinner parties in the North, the South’s version morphed in grandma’s kitchen over the years. The flavor of the original was very mild, so they traded it for the bolder cheddar cheese. To balance out the texture they added mayonnaise. The diced up pimentos though, never left the equation. The mayo-to-cheese ratio makes the whole dish just a little chunkier and a whole lot tastier.
Each family has its own recipe handed down. Some swear by Duke’s Mayo while some make their own. Some add their own secret spices and some keep it simple. My personal favorite includes a little mustard and a lot of love.
They also moved this dish from stuffy parlor rooms out into picnics, church lunches and lively community gatherings. It was a dish that popped up on Independence Day, on a trip to the beach, right next to the potato and chicken salads. It became a staple and a fond memory of family and youth for many.
Pimento cheese has made its rounds, and with the emergence of Southern food as a trend, it’s going back to its roots. New York has many restaurants with elevated Southern fare that is updating or educating the newest generation to the food of old. Van Horne Sandwich shop and other restaurants like them offer pimento cheese sandwiches in its classic and grilled forms. There are many others that are elevating the dish like Birds & Bubbles’ pimento croquettes.
I may be biased, but my favorite recipe so far has been Tupelo Honey Cafe’s.
The first time I ever tried it was at Tupelo Honey in North Carolina, served warm and resembling a queso dip like you would get in Texas. Gooey, served with tortilla chips and spiced with mustard. I have fallen in love and gotten my heart broken by pimento cheese many times since…some delicious and some outrageous.
So while the original recipe may come from New York, the flavor, texture and culture are all truly Southern-bred.