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