Pimento cheese—also known as p.c., Carolina caviar and Southern paté—is a truly Southern food. Those of us who grew up here can’t imagine a church picnic, afternoon tea, political rally or lunch-counter menu without sandwiches loaded with the mixture of grated cheese, mayonnaise and sweet peppers.
In the South, pimento cheese is a primary food group, like fried chicken, collards, grits and tomatoes. That said, people from outside the South—and even around the world—eat collards and tomatoes. They eat grits too, though they fancy them up by calling them “polenta” and adding weird stuff to them. But folks outside the South rarely, if ever, eat pimento cheese.
South of the Mason-Dixon Line, the simple spread evokes nostalgia, passion and debate on a level that few other foods do. Pimento-cheese ardor is so intense that when the Southern Foodways Alliance staged a Pimento Cheese Invitational, it received enough pimento-cheese recipes and recollections to fill a 200-plus page book, Pimento Cheese Invitational (Southern Foodways Alliance, 2003).
Pimento cheese around the South
I grew up in Georgia, which, like North Carolina, has a long and amorous relationship with pimento cheese.
Among the more famous and well-known pimento-cheese sandwiches are those sold at the annual Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Augusta National’s p.c. recipe is more highly guarded than the coveted green jacket. While there’s no indication that non-Southerners actually eat it while visiting the world-renowned tourney, a few of them probably ask, “What is that white-bread sandwich with orange filling that everyone’s eating from a wrapping of green wax paper?”
The Varsity Restaurant in downtown Atlanta makes a fast-food version of a pimento-cheese sandwich, though customers are more likely to ask for pimento cheese on their chili-cheese steak (hamburger) or chili-cheese dog. If you ask for p.c. at the greasy V, you’ll receive plain chocolate milk with ice, so make sure you say “pimennacheese” (one word) or “menta” cheese. When I lived outside the South, my first stop after getting off the plane WAS often The Varsity for a pimento-cheese chili dog.
Leaving the South for a number of years proved to me that some regional dishes—namely, pimento cheese—don’t travel well. Early in my relationship with my Ohio-bred husband, when we lived in Boston, I mentioned a longing for pimento cheese.
“What’s a pimento? It is a fish or a flower?” he asked.
It’s neither. A pimiento is a small sweet red pepper (though the Spanish spelling has two “i”s, in the U.S., the second “i” typically is dropped). Georgia is the largest grower of pimentos in the U.S., and the peppers were first roasted and sold in jars in 1916 in Griffin, Ga. (my mama’s home town), making it easy for anyone to make pimento cheese at home.
When I finally gathered the ingredients to make pimento cheese (the necessary peppers aren’t as ubiquitous in Boston grocery stores as they are in Southern ones), my husband tried it and was unimpressed. Maybe you have to grow up eating it.
North Carolina author Reynolds Price wrote about pimento cheese: “It was the peanut butter of my childhood—homemade by mother. … I’ve been caught eating a pound in two days (though it keeps well), especially if life is hard.”
Though Price is considered a North Carolinian, he, like me, was born in Georgia and moved here later, so I’m willing to bet his mother’s recipe originated in the same area of the swampy South that my grandma’s did (see both Reynolds Price’s and Grandma Olliff’s recipes at the end of this story).
In the Southern Foodways Alliance’s book, playwright Kendra Myers writes: “It’s good between two slices of bread, lining a rib of celery, packed into a cherry tomato, or perched on a cracker. It’s heaven on a hamburger or a hot dog. Or eaten with a spoon right out of the crock.”
She forgot to mention slathered on a Varsity chili-cheese dawg, but it’s difficult to cover in just a few sentences all the Southern specialties that pimento cheese enhances.
Making pimento cheese
The origins of cheese combined with pimentos and mayo are unclear, though food historians say the spread was first sold in grocery stores around the turn of the 20th century. There’s also evidence that it became popular in the South during the Great Depression as an inexpensive, easy-to-prepare source of protein.
The best pimento cheese is homemade, and almost every native-born Southerner I know has a family recipe and an opinion about what makes their combination of three-to-six basic ingredients special.
Most p.c. lovers insist on sharp cheddar cheese (often sold as “rat” or “mouse cheese”) though some recipes call for two types of cheddar—both white and orange. My family recipe includes a mix of sharp cheddar, Colby and Parmesan. And yes, some recipes even include Velveeta, though I find the idea of using processed cheese food in p.c. horrifying.
Then there’s the great mayo debate. In Georgia and the Carolinas, we tend to be Duke’s fanatics, though Hellmann’s comes a close second. In other parts of the South, there are pimento-cheese makers who favor Miracle Whip, others who swear by evaporated milk in their pimento cheese, and a fervid cream-cheese contingent. Some hardcore fans like Price make their own mayo, which, with a food processor, is much easier and less time-consuming than it used to be.
When it comes to pimentos, some recipes call for draining the pimentos, some for using the juice. Local librarian Laura Gaskin told me she buys whole roasted pimentos and chops them herself, for better flavor. They’re available pre-chopped, if you’re pushed for time.
Then there are the additions. Some folks add chopped hot peppers, such as jalapenos or chipotles. Others add chopped onions or garlic. (See photo of Asheville native Bob Sherrill’s hand-written p.c. recipe and ingredient options.) Some folks add a splash of lemon juice or beer.
A friend of mine from college says that if you mix beer in your p.c., do it gradually, in small amounts, so the mixture doesn’t get soggy.
These days, most folks throw all the ingredients in a food processor, though p.c. purists prefer using a box grater or an old-fashioned meat grinder to grate the cheese. Too much food processing can turn the mixture into mush.
Buying pimento cheese
If you can’t find the time to make it yourself, you can find pimento cheese in grocery stores, restaurants and specialty stores throughout the South.
In Asheville, a number of restaurants offer pimento cheese, including Early Girl Eatery, Tupelo Honey, The Admiral, and Southside Café.
Southside Café‘s pimento cheese, a customer favorite since 1990, is well loved locally, so much so that the café sells it in snap-top jars between Thanksgiving and New Year’s so Ashevilleans can gift it to far-flung relatives (or just take it home to enjoy).
During the rest of the year, Southside’s p.c. is sold in 10-ounce containers for $5.95 at the café. It’s sometimes sold at Ingles grocery stores as well.
Southside Café‘s owner, Lance Carter, wasn’t willing to share the recipe for his popular p.c., but he did say he thinks the combination of extra-sharp Wisconsin white and yellow cheddars and Reggiano Parmesan are what makes it special.
Carter says a number of the restaurant’s menu items make use of p.c., but the most popular is the Southern BLT: fried green tomatoes, bacon and lettuce, all smothered with a healthy dollop of pimento cheese.
Personally, I crave The Admiral restaurant’s pimento-cheese appetizer, topped with a splash of ale and served simply with pita bread and carrot and celery sticks (The Admiral shared their recipe; see sidebar.)
Most grocery stores in the area make and sell their own p.c. as well, including Ingles, The Fresh Market, Greenlife, Earth Fare, and Grove Corner Market. Grocery store p.c. can be slimy and contain too much mayo; Grove Corner Market’s, made with sharp N.Y. aged cheddar and just the right amount of mayo, is my favorite of the store-bought varieties I’ve tried. I only wish that the pimentos were more finely chopped.
Anne Fitten Glenn writes the Edgy Mama column for Xpress.