An Ode to Pimento Cheese

What is it about the orange spread that has such a hold on our collective Southern consciousness?

My dad never cooked much when I was growing up.

Right before he got sick, he was starting to get into elaborate dishes—I remember him making a lasagna that had prosciutto in it, which was the first time I had ever heard of the Italian cured ham—and I have no doubt that if he hadn't died, he'd now be spending his weekends cooking from Ad Hoc at Home or Momofuku.

But as it was, my father died of cancer in 1993, and except for those few fancy dinner parties, his cooking was relegated to the occasional grilling of steaks, making chili, and whipping up pimento cheese. My mom made a pimento cheese ring with jam, but my dad always made the plain pimento cheese.

I had actually forgotten about my father's pimento cheese until recently—most of my childhood pimento cheese memories revolve around the Gooey Sandwiches we'd get Sundays after church at the Lookout Mountain Golf Club. Made of pimento cheese, tomatoes, onions, and bacon, the sandwiches were grilled until the cheese was bubbly and the bread crisp, a perfect combination of textures and flavors.

Then I stopped eating bacon. We canceled our golf club membership after my father's death—despite his best efforts, I was never very good at the sport. I went to school up north, where no one had heard of pimento cheese, and I was too busy discovering sushi and rugelach and pirogies to miss it. I missed biscuits and grits and fried okra and everything Waffle House, but I don't remember missing pimento cheese much at all.

Oh, how times have changed.

A year and a half ago, I left Oxford, Miss., and I can tell you the one thing I miss the most, other than my friends, is the pimento cheese upstairs at the bar at City Grocery.

It is pale orange and thick and a little bit spicy; it is served with seasoned crostini and pickled okra. It is everything pimento cheese should be. It is not too mayonnaisey. It is not too sweet. With a glass of Sauvignon Blanc on the balcony in the summer or a glass of Rioja at the bar in the winter, it is perfection in a ramekin.

Over the past few years, pimento cheese has become omnipresent on menus of all the best restaurants in the South, and I've become obsessed with eating it. Not eating pimento cheese fritters or pimento mac and cheese, just the pure unadulterated spread itself.

I knew my love of pimento cheese was not abnormal, but I didn't realize how much my journey from nonchalant liking to fixation paralleled the history of the spread itself until I discovered Charleston, S.C., food historian Robert F. Moss' blog, Al Forno Charleston. Moss wrote a history of barbecue that was published last year, but he's a serious aficionado of pimento cheese as well.

In a series of blog posts, Moss documents the little-explored history of pimento cheese, and it turns out our Southern food staple is actually a product of the North—and originally didn't have mayonnaise in it. He writes that as cream cheese and red "pimiento" peppers (the extra "i" from the Spanish spelling soon got lost) became widely available and affordable around the turn of the last century, the domestic science movement popularized the combination of the two items as a sandwich spread. Dairy manufacturers soon followed suit.

"Commercially-made pimento cheese hit the market around the beginning of 1910 and was distributed to grocery stores across the country, starting in the Midwest," Moss writes. "Within a year, pimento cheese was being advertised by grocers as far west as Portland, Oregon, and Albuquerque, New Mexico."

Moss says pimento cheese remained a national item until the 1940s, when its popularity began to fade. Within a decade, even the recipes for cream cheese and pimento spreads were gone. Take the two tomes of mid-century cooking: The Joy of Cooking and the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. Each has recipes for cream cheese spreads—with anchovies, with caviar—or spreads that include Cheddar and Roquefort, but nothing resembling traditional pimento cheese.

Even in Southern community cookbooks of the era, it's hard to find recipes for plain pimento cheese. What you will find, however, are recipes for things like "Artificial Strawberries," from 1971's The Jackson Cookbook, published by the Symphony League of Jackson, Miss. (complete with a foreword by Miss Eudora Welty herself). The recipe uses a blend of cream cheese, pre-packaged pimento cheese, Cheddar cheese, nuts, and seasonings to make a cheese spread that one is supposed to dye with red food coloring and shape like strawberries and serve on crackers with coffee. (Did Welty eat these? We can but wonder.)

North Carolina food historian Emily Wallace wrote an entire master's thesis on pimento cheese, and she says that in the 1920s the spread went from being a delicacy for entertaining to a cheap, filling lunch for mill workers. Pimento cheese and chicken salad sandwiches were the original convenience food that workers could eat without leaving the line. Indeed, Eugenia Duke (of Duke's Mayonnaise) started her business selling sandwiches to textile mill workers at lunchtime.

So what is it about pimento cheese that gives it such stature, I ask Wallace. Why are there odes to pimento cheese but not chicken salad?

"I think a lot of it has to do with memory, and people associate it with family or a specific restaurant or store, so it carries that meaning too," Wallace says in a phone interview. "It appeals to a wide range of folks for a wide range of reasons. You can serve it on sandwiches or on crackers. You can take it to work or take it on a picnic. I think its breadth makes it one of the more talked about Southern foods."

Moss says it's that association with memory that has taken pimento cheese from the prepackaged spread of the 1950s and '60s to a gourmet menu item. In a phone interview, he explains that in the 1980s a new generation of Southern writers and chefs started mining their childhood for inspiration, creating a new Southern cuisine and reviving Southern food along the way.

"I feel like pimento cheese was rescued because they remembered it from their childhood," Moss says. "And it became an instant Southern classic, very similar to the way fried green tomatoes did. I don't remember seeing them on a menu anywhere before that movie [1991's Fried Green Tomatoes] came out."

But unlike fried green tomatoes, which peaked in popularity years ago, pimento cheese is having its moment now. Bon Appétit called pimento cheese one of the top food trends of 2011. It's on the menu at some of New York's trendiest restaurants, in everything from scalloped potatoes to sushi.

That's a long way from the scene described in a recent NPR interview with former White House chefs Frank Ruta and Roland Mesnier, in which the pair make fun of First Lady Rosalind Carter's insistence on always serving a pimento cheese ring filled with strawberry jam—one just like my mother makes.

"I think we made one and kept bringing it out, kind of like the fruitcake," Mesnier jokes in the interview. "We froze it, brought it out and I bet [if] you go back to the White House freezer today, you would still find [it]."

The trendiness of pimento cheese has attracted new fans, like my friend Katie Burnett, a graduate student in the University of Tennessee's English Department.

"I always hated pimento cheese growing up—my great aunts' recipes basically consisted of equal parts American cheese and mayo, so I have barely-repressed memories of mushy, plastic-y cheese soaked in glop on thin white sandwich bread," says Burnett. But after tasting the Public House's bacon pimento cheese, Burnett became a convert and now has her own recipe for the spread.

As I go through cookbook after cookbook, I find myself struggling to remember what recipe my father used to make his. Was it the 1968 recipe from the Houston Junior League Cook Book for "Pimiento Cheese"? Adding the juice from the pimentos seems familiar.

I come across a recipe for "Mrs. Rhyne's Cheese Boxes" from 1978's Southern Sideboards, another Jackson cookbook. The addition of Durkee's seems to ring a bell, but that could be just because the golf club always had Durkee's on the table.

I go through Miss Daisy Entertains, Out of Our League, Charleston Receipts, Party Potpourri. As Moss predicted, most don't even have recipes for pimento cheese. Finally I pull out Cotton County Collection, another of my parents' old community cookbooks, first published the year my parents married in 1972, now so worn and used it's long since been rebound from its original spiral binding. There it is, a recipe for "Party Pimento Cheese Spread," a recipe that uses both Durkee's and mustard. This has to be it, right?

Does it even matter, I wonder? If I make this recipe, will it awaken the taste of my childhood? What if I don't like it? What if I pollute my idealized memory of my dead father by discovering his recipe for pimento cheese no longer lives up to my discerning palate, spoiled by City Grocery?

I ask my mom.

"Oh, your dad didn't use a recipe," she says. "He just had it all in his head. He never used a recipe, except as kind of a guideline."

I pause in frustration. If he never used a recipe, I'll never be able to recreate his pimento cheese. It's yet another thing I'll never know about my dad, another question that won't ever be answered.

I make the Southern Foodways Alliance recipe for pimento cheese instead. It tastes like City Grocery's pimento cheese. For a brief moment I'm back in Mississippi, my parents' home state, back in the land of Faulkner, my father's favorite writer. For a brief moment I have the taste of Oxford in my mouth. It tastes spicy and sad, somewhat bitter. It tastes like goodbye.