Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What is in pimento cheese?

      I was born and raised beneath the cultural divide of the Mason-Dixon line. Even though the corner of Virginia that I have called home for most of my life sits along the banks of the Potomac River, in plain view of the nation's capital, and is fondly known as " the occupied territories" by my friends in the heart of Dixie, my sensibilities, manners and taste buds all bear the imprint of the South.
     I was surprised, then, when a post on a friend's Facebook page elicited a flood of comments and questions about pimento cheese. My friend had spent a day in Richmond and had enjoyed a sandwich that brought together two Southern favorites - fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese. Genius, huh? My mouth began to water as soon as I read her post and I immediately began to plan my next trip to Richmond. I wasn't surprised to read the appreciative comments that her Facebook post elicited, but I found myself confounded by those who claimed never to have made a batch of this Southern staple and simply gobsmacked by those who claimed never to have tasted it!
     I have enjoyed pimento cheese on celery sticks, slathered on toast and piped into cream puffs. I dream about grilled pimento cheese sandwiches with bacon and sliced tomatoes. I've slathered it on hamburger and hot dog buns as a condiment for those sizzling, just-off-the-grill burgers, sausages and hot dogs. It is great on crackers as a quick snack.
     But, far and away, most of my exposure to, and appreciation of, pimento cheese comes from those occasions when people gather to celebrate, remember, and eat. I was at an ordination last week where I counted at least eight varieties of pimento cheese tea sandwiches - I attempted to taste them all. A pitcher of sweet tea, a plate of ham biscuits and some pimento cheese sandwiches, and you have yourself a "reception."  One of my favorite books on life in the South is "Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral" by Gayden Metcalfe (Miramax Publishing, 2005).  This witty, and wicked, insight into Southern culture includes not one, but a handful of recipes by ladies for whom "bring-a-dish" is a competitive sport! Pimento cheese sandwiches - cut into quarters on crustless white bread- fit all the criteria for acceptable finger food. Easy to handle, easy to chew, easy to digest.  Perched daintily on a china plate, balanced on a napkin, or snatched directly from the serving platter to mouth - making sure that mama isn't watching.  I've eaten pimento cheese sandwiches at weddings, funerals, baptisms, baby showers, ordinations, tea parties, sorority lunches, rummage sales, picnics and fundraisers.  Whether you like pimento cheese or not is  a matter of personal preference, but the idea of someone who hasn't tasted it...well, butter my buns and call me a biscuit!
     I should make one thing clear...if your only exposure to pimento cheese comes from the slimy, sweet, orange goo that comes from the deli case at the Piggly-Wiggly, you haven't tasted pimento cheese. The real thing begins with real cheese. Almost always cheddar, although family feuds persist over the primacy of sharp and mild. Good mayo, a jar of chopped pimentos, and you've got yourself the beginnings of something special. From there, the possibilities expand.  Every Southern cook has their own ideas on what makes the "perfect" pimento cheese. I like Worchestershire sauce and grated onion. Some add garlic, cayenne or other spices. Some grate their cheese, others mash it to a paste. One friend swears by a splash of beer.
    My daughter and son married into two of the nicest families on the planet. Our new extended family comes with regular  deliveries of some of the best pimento cheese I've ever eaten. My new favorite way to enjoy pimento cheese is around Gene and Debbie's kitchen table while we swap superlatives on the precious grandbaby we share. They  sneak a bit of finely chopped jalapeno into the mixture and it is out of this world! Love on a cracker. Comfort food at its finest.
     There is something sacred about sharing recipes and traditions. Breaking bread around table or altar, baking your grandma's coveted poundcake, sharing the soup you always deliver to the parents of newborns (the same soup your godmother brought you when you brought home your own precious bundle)... This is the stuff of life, and of love. Like pimento cheese, it's hard to get too much of a good thing.
     And so, I'm wondering.....What do you put in your pimento cheese?

Just in case you were looking for some basic proportions, start with this:
      1 1/2 c. mayonnaise
      4 oz. jar of diced pimentos, drained
      1 pound cheddar cheese grated
      1/2 t. Worchestershire sauce
      1 T. Minced or grated onion
Then, let your taste buds take over! Try garlic, onion salt, crumbled bacon, diced jalapeno peppers, chopped olives, horseradish,  Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper. Experiment with cheeses, try American for a milder flavor - but NEVER use the fake stuff! Try a splash of beer or cooking sherry. Mash or blend to desired consistency. Share with someone you love.