Sometimes called the “house pâté” of the South—and not always as a compliment—pimiento cheese used to be essential stock in the refrigerator of any Southern cook who aspired to be known as a good one. Its origins are uncertain, but in the South it goes back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century. The oldest recipe I’ve found is a sketchy outline in Martha McCulloch-Williams’ Dishes & Beverages of the Old South, published in 1913, but its very off-hand treatment gives away that it was by then already commonplace.
By 1928, it was so taken for granted that Mrs. Dull mentioned it in the sandwich chapter of Southern Cooking but didn’t bother to give a recipe. And while there’s no proof that it was invented in the South, the fact that it was (until very recently) rarely found anywhere else in the country, coupled with the fact that America’s pimiento supply comes mostly from Georgia and Tennessee, is certainly suggestive.
Probably everyone thinks his or her grandmother made the best, but MaMa’s really had no equal. It was nothing more than a judicious balance of good grated cheese, diced pimientos, and just enough mayonnaise to bind it. She did not hold with pinches of mustard, grated onion, garlic, Worcestershire, or even hot pepper, because it didn’t need any of those things: it was already nearer perfection than most of us see in this life.
Part of that perfection was the cheese, which was where my grandfather comes into the picture. He ran a real country store, the kind with dry goods and groceries in the front and aged beef, poultry, pork and house-made sausage in a sawdust-strewn butcher’s shop at the back. He would buy the sharpest cheddar he could lay his hands on, in great cloth-bound wheels packed in wooden crates, and age them in the meat locker for at least another year—two, if he could manage it. Dense, slightly crumbly, and flecked with white protein crystals like a well-aged Parmesan, it was so sharp that it would take the roof off one’s mouth. To this day it remains my standard against which all hard cheeses are measured.
It would’ve been hard for my grandmother to go wrong with cheese like that. Unhappily, I have a hard time finding anything close, so nowadays I use the sharpest aged cheddar I can get my hands on and add in a little Parmigiano-Reggiano to give it body. That’s all I add, too. Ever since the “foodie” wave swept our country, there has been a depressing tendency to try to dress up this spread, but if you have decently aged cheddar, quality pimientos, and good mayonnaise (that is, homemade), they need nothing more than restraint. A pinch of dry mustard might perk up an indifferent cheese; a dash of hot sauce, tablespoon or so of grated onion, or teaspoon of grated garlic might not hurt so long as they stay in the background; but there’s no place in the mix for olives (even pimiento-stuffed), sun-dried tomatoes, roasted bell peppers (which are not at all the same thing as pimientos), Thai chili sauce, or any other so-called “gourmet” stuff.
Classic Pimiento Cheese
Makes about 2˝ cups
8 ounces (1 small block, about 2 generous cups grated) extra-sharp cheddar
2 ounces (˝ cup grated) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
About 5-to-6 tablespoons mayonnaise, preferably homemade
1 4-ounce jar diced pimientos, drained but liquid reserved, roughly chopped
Ground cayenne pepper
1. Finely grate half the cheddar and all of the Parmigiano through the finest holes of a box grater, a rotary cheese grater, a Microplane grater, or with the fine shredding disk in the food processor. Mix together lightly.
2. Knead 4 tablespoons mayonnaise until the mixture is creamy and very smooth. This can be done in a food processor fitted with a steel blade, but be careful not to over-process it or the mayonnaise could break and make the pimiento cheese oily.
3. Coarsely grate the remaining cheese. Work it, the pimientos, and a tablespoon of reserved pimiento liquid into the mixture until it is almost smooth but still a bit lumpy. Add mayonnaise by tablespoonfuls until it is just spreadable (it should be very thick and taste of cheese, not mayonnaise), and season with cayenne or hot sauce to taste. Mix well.
To make the perfect summer sandwich, just spread pimiento cheese generously on thick-sliced white, wheat, or rye bread and dig in. When the weather cools, brush a heated grill with butter and grill the sandwich until the bread is toasted golden-brown and the cheese is melted. To dress them up for afternoon tea or reception finger sandwiches, use any thin-sliced bread, trim off the crusts, and cut them on the diagonal into small triangles.
That said, you don’t need two sliced of bread to enjoy pimiento cheese. Put it in a pastry bag fitted with an open star tip and pipe it into 3-inch lengths of washed, dried, and strung celery (or just spoon it in and rake the top with a fork). Let it soften to room temperature and serve it as a cocktail or tea spread with crackers or sturdy pita chips. Or simply wait until no one is looking and eat it straight out of the bowl with a spoon.