Pimento Cheese: Southern Comfort

“Food is not about impressing people. It’s about making them feel comfortable.”
Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

My own recipe. C.Hutson Wrenn

My own recipe. C.Hutson Wrenn

Pimento cheese is Southern comfort food, a cool mixture of cheese, mayonnaise and a little sweet pepper called a pimento. May is pimento month they say, and there are enough stories that surround food in the South to consider them an art form. Pat Conroy’s 2004 cookbook combines story and food like no other. Our classic, local, award winning cookbook is called Charleston Receipts, and is the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print, full of Gullah sayings and 750 recipes. Virginia Hendricks of Richmond, Virginia, charmingly calls we Southerners ‘cookahs, eatahs, and writahs’. That and more. Southern Foodways collected recipes and colorful tales specifically around Pimento Cheese during the 2003 Pimento Cheese Invitational. Aunt Ella’s legend is one you will not forget.

One of my favorites family food stories, told in ‘Pon Top, the terrific Edisto Island cookbook put together by the Episcopal Church there, is of a cousin whose mother and aunt made ketchup by boiling their homegrown tomatoes in a huge pot outside, alternately stirring the concoction with a paddle and sitting in rockers on the porch, while at the same time, sipping a little vodka to stay cool. My grandmother, every Christmas, made cheese straws, which she made round, more like Pat Conroy’s version that he calls cheese coins. My Daddy-Tom kept them in a tin hidden in his desk, eating three every night at cocktail hour, until they ran out in February. My own mother is known for her rice and gravy, and my sister, Dianne, who was a marvelous cook, competed with me over our carrot cake recipe, arguing that she got hers from Nellie in Mooresville first, and that my Bundt pan version was just not right at all, “just not enough icin’, dahlin”.

Pimento cheese is classic Southern comfort food, a favorite to serve to Sunday afternoon guests, for bridal luncheons and for that tray of sandwiches we take to the house after someone dies. Because of its rich flavor, ease of preparation and versatility as a sandwich, cracker or vegetable topping, it is an endearing favorite. It does not show up in the Charleston cookbook, and some say it only began to be made in the early 1900’s, when it Sandwicheswas a delicacy for the Southern farm families who created it, said Millie Coleman, author of The Frances Virginia Tea Room Cook Book, which offers recipes from the legendary Atlanta restaurant. “Pimento cheese was a gourmet item,” the Carrollton, Ga., native said. “Generally, you ate what you grew. You had plenty of turnip greens and other vegetables, but on the farm you didn’t produce your own cheese. And when Southern farmers did make cheese, it was a white cheese, like cottage cheese or ricotta. Yellow cheese was Northern cheese, and to have store-bought cheese, that was a treat.” To turn it into a Southern creation, it got mixed it with mayonnaise, a typically Southern sandwich spread (my sister and many consider Duke’s mayonnaise the only one). They tossed in pimento peppers, which were once grown and canned across Georgia. It was served on white bread, not hard Northern rolls. “Our heritage was the heritage of England and Scotland and Ireland, where they had soft bread like scones,” Mrs. Coleman said. “In the North, where they came from other parts of Europe, they grew wheat that produced a harder flour. Flour from the types of wheat grown in the South is softer, almost like cake flour.” My recipe card (above) needs the grated Vermont white cheddar, an essential ingredient. Over the years I began to spice it up with red onion, grated with the microplane grater I use for the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and I add more freshly grated pepper, Coleman’s dry mustard, and a little balsamic vinegar. The food processor, like Aunt Ella used from the story about her in Southern Foodways is a lifesaver, and I use (forgive me) Hellman’s mayonnaise. It is the lemony thing I think. And goodness, no sugar. You can add jalapenos, red pepper flakes, or some tabasco give it a little more kick.

For whatever the reason, pimento cheese now has a legendary reputation in the South. Cousin Pinkney Mikell calls it Southern Caviar. The pimiento cheese sandwich is a staple of the April Masters golf classic at Augusta, Elvis insisted on it on top of his hamburger, a Pimento Queen gets crowned in Zebulon, Georgia during their annual Pimento Festival, and all summer long, it’s made with love by millions of southern families during the hot months of summer making it the coolest sandwich of all.

I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in Arts & Culture, creativity, Food, travel, Writing
7 comments on “Pimento Cheese: Southern Comfort
  1. Pinkney says:

    Well, I am copying your receipt, Deahh. Maybe ah’ll make it. Mostly Ah buy it from the Pig, but all the nieces and sisters and aunts and cousins make it so it is always around. Even the commercial stuff is good and can be doctored a little if the ‘hot’ isn’t right. I remember pimento sandwiches with just a little cheese. These have been replaced with pimento CHEESE sandwiches. Lots of cheese with some pimentos. Always on white bread, no crusts and a very thin filling. I have lately been eating it as a dip on a sort of corn chip from Costco…. Oh Dear God, forgive me my errant ways.

  2. I want to see what the Pimento Queen looks like! :)

  3. Shell&Chris MacLEAN says:

    Thanks again for the travel tips.
    Great website!

    Many regards
    Your Canadian “boosters”.

  4. Skip says:

    Aunt Sha –
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful recipe for pimento cheese which I have always thought was the best I have ever tasted. KEY – the vermont sharp cheese, and just enough, but not too much mayonnaise. Enough so you wont destroy the bread while spreading. I am in the Dukes mayo camp as well. :)

    • Skip, darlin! You are exactly right about the mayonnaise quantity, and what a perfect way to describe how much! How could you NOT be a Duke’s man? I can hear your mama’s voice, right now, defending the holy Southern spread! :) xoxo

  5. You are so right when it comes to saying that food should make people feel comfortable. Also, food/recipes are made with love. Lots of tasting by the cook goes into making a dish. Becuase ultimately, it is the flavor that the cook likes that is end result.

  6. nightphyre says:

    I am a Southern cook, recently returned to the South, and people say my “(insert whatever food I am cooking)” is better, even sandwiches! I tell them what Southern mama’s say that special ingredient is – LOVE. I love to cook and ALL my food has “love” as an extra ingredient…….here in Louisiana, we call that Lagniappe (a little somethin’ extra)!

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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