“I plan to eat more or less exclusively pimento cheese and tomato sandwiches for the next three months or so. Maybe four. I guess summer is just really getting rolling.”
Southerners like Tanner Almond know that summertime means a diet of pimento cheese and tomato sandwiches - and they’re not complaining. Pimento cheese has been a staple to Southern culinary culture since the early 20th century, upon the invention of processed cheese in 1915. The dish happily fed families for a much cheaper cost than other meals and was so simple to make. Now, pimento cheese has evolved into more intricate dish variations but still rings true to its origin.
WHAT IS IT?
If you’re a foreigner to this Southern dietary necessity, allow me to explain. A pimento cheese maker starts out with either shredded or grated cheese, adding in mayonnaise or cream cheese, pimentos, salt and pepper and a preference of spices. In the end, the mixture is comparable to any spread one would serve as an appetizer on toast points or crackers. Pimento cheese is to southerners what bruschetta is to Italians.
The cheese is what really makes or breaks the spread. Most Southerners know it’s safe to stick with the traditional sharp cheddar, but lately there has been a lot of kitchen experimentation which shows that pimento cheese can be equally delicious - yet very different - just by using a different type of cheese. Local Columbia, S.C. restaurant DiPrato’s Delicatessen sells pimento cheese in a few different popular flavors. Blue cheese, smoked gouda and bacon, sharp white cheddar, jalapeño cheddar and the traditional sharp cheddar are all on DiPrato’s menu.
If you start out with a block of cheese and hand-grate it, you have more control over the consistency of the final product. Pimento cheese should be thick enough to hold a sandwich together, but soft enough to dually function as a dip.
HOW TO EAT IT
There are an endless amount of ways to serve and eat pimento cheese. The most popular way to eat pimento cheese is between two slices of bread like an old-fashioned sandwich. Experienced southerners know that tomatoes or a thinly-sliced piece of ham or turkey are a great addition to your sandwich. Pimento cheese is also great served as a spread, in a bowl with toast points for guests. For a low-carb option, try spreading it on celery.
In Columbia, pimento cheese seems to be everywhere. At the South Carolina Cornbread Festival, I found a hot dog smothered in pimento cheese. Rockaway’s Athletic Club is famous for its use of pimento cheese and serves it over french fries or on a burger. Terra has its own pimento cheeseburger pizza. Mr. Friendly’s Southern Cafe serves fried green tomatoes with applewood smoked bacon as an appetizer. A Cafe Strudel special is a pimento cheese quesadilla. Cool Beans serves a grilled pimento cheese and tomato sandwich on focaccia bread that’ll have your mouth watering at the thought. Of course, there are numerous other cheesy dishes in the Columbia area and across the South.
If you can’t make a trip to the south, no worries. You can still bring a little south to your own kitchen. Here’s how to make your own pimento cheese.
HOW TO MAKE IT
The great thing about making pimento cheese is that it’s so simple, and you’ll soon figure out your personal taste preference, start experimenting and decide exactly how you like it. To make it easy, stick with a traditional recipe and go from there.
TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN PIMENTO CHEESE
Start to finish: 15 minutes
8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise (Preferably Dukes, if you want to keep the dish genuinely southern)
4-ounce jar of Pimentos
Salt and Black Pepper (to taste)
Other seasonings (optional): Paprika, Cumin, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Chili Powder
Start out with the 8 ounce bag of shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Put the cheese in a bowl and add mayonnaise, pimentos, salt and light pepper. You will not need all 4 oz. of the pimentos, so add them spoonful by spoonful to your liking. Using a spoon or rubber spatula, fold the mixture over until it’s all combined. If you have a mixer, beat the ingredients on a lower setting for a more whipped texture. As you mix, you may have to add more mayonnaise if the mixture is too dry.
Many recipes also call for one of the spices listed above. Choose one, sprinkle over the top and continue folding until it is mixed completely.
Place the pimento cheese mixture into the fridge until you’re ready to serve it. It will stay good in the fridge for up to one week.
Invite some friends over, and dig in! It’s as simple as that. Once you find your own twist on this southern classic, your pimento cheese recipe will be the talk of the picnic.
Love it? HATE it? Let me know: @meredithalmond.