Hooked On Cheese: Cheese, Southern-Style

This is part one of a two-part story from cheese expert Raymond Hook on the uses of cheese in Southern cooking. This week we focus on traditional Southern dishes; next week we'll spotlight contemporary and creative recipes. Stay tuned for Part II!

Cheese is my passion in life and always has been. That doesn't mean I've always eaten great cheese, though. Growing up in rural Oklahoma, I ate mostly processed American "cheese," and not even the name-brand version; my family's was "government cheese" and came in a five-pound brick in a plain brown box. But as I got older I moved around the country and was thankfully exposed to a much broader food culture. I went to college in Las Vegas, then moved to Los Angeles, South Florida, and San Francisco (for a thirteen-year "layover") before settling in Atlanta, Georgia for five years.

When I arrived in Atlanta from the West Coast, I immersed myself in Southern culture and, above all else, Southern cooking. I loved the comforting nature of food culture in the South: the nonchalant use of locally grown produce prepared in simple ways; the nuance and tradition of the pickled and preserved items; the real hospitality of anyone who set a plate down in front of you; and, of course, the creative ways in which Southerners use cheese. During my first months back in the Southern states I traveled a lot in the region – Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North and South Carolina – eating all I could. I wanted to get a sense of where the foundation of this passion for food came from.

Over the course of my travels, I began to make a list of my Southern Cheese All-Stars: the quintessential Southern recipes involving cheese. Here are my Top 5 Southern cheese dishes:

#1: Cheese grits. Grits, the official prepared food of the state of Georgia, have a fascinating history rooted in Native American tradition. While you can rely on the instant variety in a pinch, it takes patience to cook real grits; you have to stir them over low heat for anywhere between 50 and 90 minutes. My preferred brand of grits is Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse White Grits; they cook to a perfect creamy richness, and the maize flavor shines through even after you blend in a generous portion of young cheddar. Cheese grits make the perfect brunch side dish, or if you prefer, they can become the main attraction when topped with a fried or scrambled egg.

#2: If you go to any picnic, family reunion or BBQ in the South, you'll have the opportunity to try someone's grandmother's "famous" mac and cheese. I'll tell you right now, it'll probably be the best thing you've ever tasted. This happened to me more than once during my travels and I was pretty flabbergasted. As we all know, there are countless varieties of this Southern classic.

#3: Here's one you may not be so familiar with: the pineapple casserole. Chef Tamie Cook, a recipe developer and true Southern belle, says this obscure recipe is often found in spiral-bound Southern community cookbooks. I'd never even heard of it until my travels in the South, but Southerners seem to love anything in a casserole, so I can't say it surprised me too much! The dish is based around a mixture of pineapple tidbits and grated cheddar cheese which is topped with a mixture of butter and Ritz crackers, then baked until the cheese is melted and the topping is crisp. IF this sounds a little strange, take one taste and you'll be shocked by how good it is.

#4: I'd be remiss if I failed to mention one supremely Southern dish: the celebrated Hot Brown sandwich, created by the chef The Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. It was developed in the 1920s as a classy snack for late-night revelers who had perhaps sampled too much of the region's famous bourbon. It consists of roasted turkey breast, Texas Toast trimmed of its crust, chunks of ripe tomatoes, Mornay Sauce, and bacon slices. Mornay is a cream-based sauced with cheese added; the chef at The Brown uses pecorino, a hard Italian sheep's milk cheese. They broil the Hot Brown until the cheese sauce becomes, well, brown...and delectably bubbly on top.

#5: My absolute favorite traditional Southern cheese item has been saved for last: pimento cheese. My friend Jeremy Little at Sweet Grass Dairy makes a stellar version. His is made with his own dairy's Thomasville Tomme, shredded and mixed with Duke's Mayo – a must according to all Southerners I asked – with roasted red peppers and Pimiento de Espelette added in. I've been known to eat an entire eight-ounce tub in one sitting. Yes, it's that good.

These five dishes are only the tip of the iceberg as far as the South's long, rich cheese traditions are concerned. The further I delve into Southern cuisine, the more I appreciate the region's intense, distinctive commitment to food culture. As a lifelong cheese-lover, I'm eternally grateful that this ingredient is so prominently featured in the joyful cooking of the South.

You can follow Raymond's cheese adventures on Facebook, Twitter and his website. Additional reporting by Madeleine James.