Food & Drink

What’s pimento cheese, and why does the South love it so much?

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Really, world? You still think the South is weird because we love pimento cheese?

Even though it has been spreading through the rest of the world, particularly in the hands of inventive chefs, it still puzzles and even intimidates people who didn’t grow up with it.

Amanda Magnus is originally from Maryland and even lived in Wisconsin, the land of cheese. But until she moved to Durham earlier this year, she had never encountered pimento cheese.

Magnus turned to CuriousNC, a joint venture between The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer, and The Herald-Sun that invites readers to submit questions about North Carolina for our reporters to answer.

We have a lot of experience in tackling the many mysteries of pimento cheese.

“I still haven’t tried it,” Magnus admits. “I don’t exactly understand what it is. How did somebody create this and why is it associated with the South?”

It’s easy to explain what pimento cheese is: Shredded or grated cheddar cheese (preferably extra-sharp) mixed with mayonnaise and diced pimentos. Even if it only has three basic ingredients, each of them is fiercely debated: Duke’s vs. Hellmann’s mayonnaise; the sharpness of the cheddar, how it’s grated, from fine to coarse; and whether roasted red peppers are an acceptable substitute for pimentos. (If you do it, we suggest not mentioning it out loud in certain circles.)

IMG_PIMENTO_CHEESE Todd Sumlin
In the Carolinas, the savory spread of pimento cheese is always en vogue. Todd Sumlin tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

What’s harder to answer is how it started and why it’s considered Southern. While some sources claim it started with subsidized cheese as a cheap form of protein during the Depression, the recipe is actually much older. Versions show up in Southern cookbooks in the late 19th and early 20th century.

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It may have become popular in the South because it didn’t spoil easily at room temperature, making it easy to pack in lunchboxes, particularly for textile workers. But it was also fashionable as a sandwich in tea rooms.

Eugenia Duke, the founder of the famous Southern mayonnaise brand, came up with it to use for pimento cheese sandwiches she sold to restaurants and factory cafeterias around Greenville.

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During the heyday of cocktail parties from the 1930s through the ‘60s, it was a popular spread to serve with crackers and celery sticks, or to turn into cheese balls for holiday parties. It also became famous as the go-to sandwich at the annual Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga.

While pimento cheese was mostly homemade for much of the 20th century, it’s had a renaissance in the last decade, with a number of good-quality brands now sold in supermarkets. Some of the most popular include Palmetto Cheese, which started as a cocktail-hour treat at the Sea View Inn on Pawleys Island in South Carolina, and Charlotte-made brands like Queen Charlotte Pimento Cheese Royale, Augusta’s, Penny’s and My Three Sons’.

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Kathleen Purvis; 704-358-5236.

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