Pimento cheese is one of the South’s culinary darlings.
By Sarah Gleim
There are many foods synonymous with the South: shrimp, grits, cornbread and barbecue among them. Then there’s pimento cheese. The creamy concoction has been a staple at parties and Southern homes for generations.
However, despite its reputation for being so classically Southern, it actually has Northern origins. Pimento cheese supposedly got its start in New York, where most of the cream cheese in the country was being produced at the turn of the 20th century. About 10 years later, canned pimento peppers from Spain became available in New York, and it didn’t take long for the two ingredients to be combined, creating pimento cheese.
It wasn’t until farmers in Georgia began growing pimentos that the spread became so popular below the Mason-Dixon Line. The region also gave it its own twist: Instead of using cream cheese, Southern cooks created their own recipes, incorporating bolder shredded cheddar cheese mixed with mayonnaise to recreate the creamy texture of cream cheese, along with a few dashes of cayenne pepper or hot sauce.
The simple, cheesy spread has remained popular ever since, but somewhere along the way, we started to recognize that pimento cheese’s iconic flavors could still be prepared—and served—in sophisticated ways.
“People gravitate to simple flavor profiles,” says Daniel Zeal, executive chef at The Lodge at Sea Island. “Pimento cheese is easy and it’s delicious.” The restaurants at The Lodge serve a ton of the cheesy spread (about 5 gallons every two to three days during the busy season), which is made with Tillamook cheddar cheese, Duke’s mayonnaise and whole imported roasted pimento peppers.
“Our bread service at The Lodge is baked biscuits with pimento cheese as one of the core ingredients,” Zeal says. “But we’ve put pimento cheese in everything from deviled eggs and grits to risotto and pork buns.”
Chef Kevin Clark, the owner of Home Grown Ga. in Atlanta’s Reynoldstown neighborhood, has also noticed pimento’s big fan base. His restaurant makes about 50 pounds of the spread every week.
“I grew up with pimento cheese always in my refrigerator, but it was never homemade,” Clark says. “I never really even liked the stuff until I made my own—it was just some spread my mom always bought.”
Clark has definitely perfected his take on pimento cheese. Home Grown’s version has won the Meltdown competition at Atlanta’s Cheese Fest three times, and Clark and his partner, Lisa Spooner, were invited to produce and sell it in retail stores across the country, from Georgia to New Mexico, including at Murray’s, Albertsons and local specialty stores.
The award-winning Grant’s Stack sandwich at Home Grown, which includes a fried green tomato, bacon and pimento cheese grilled on Texas toast, is one of the restaurant’s best-sellers. Another one of the restaurant’s favorites, Lynne’s Stack, is named for a customer who ordered two salmon patties, two fried green tomatoes, sautéed spinach, tomatoes and melted pimento cheese grilled on Texas toast every day.
Back at Sea Island, the simple pimento cheese sandwich on white bread is also extremely popular with guests, especially golfers. “It’s probably the No. 2 item we sell on the golf course, just after the hot dog,” Zeal says. “The Masters probably has a lot to do with that. The $1 pimento cheese sandwich is one of the most popular topics of conversation at the event.”
However, the culinary staff at Sea Island know how to elevate pimento cheese beyond the traditional white bread sandwich. At the elegant Forbes Five-Star Georgian Room, guests start their meal with a pork bun with pimento cheese amuse-bouche. “It’s made with pimento cheese, bacon, fried pickles and coleslaw on handmade steamed buns,” Zeal says. “It’s the first bite you get at the Georgian Room—it’s a really great opportunity to showcase what we can do. What’s more Southern than pimento cheese and house-made bacon?”
Here’s how to make Home Grown Ga.’s special pimento cheese spread.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup of mayonnaise
1/2 cup of diced pimento peppers
1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
2 to 4 dashes of Crystal hot sauce
In a large mixing bowl, stir together all of the ingredients until the mixture is smooth and spreadable. Cover and chill. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes and stir well before serving. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.