The first time I really looked into the history of pimento cheese, I wrote a long article that opened, "Pimento cheese has a dirty little secret. The 'pâté of the South' isn't really very Southern at all."
What surprised me most at the time was discovering that this gooey concoction of shredded cheese, mayo, and diced red pimentos—a blend now considered one of the quintessential Southern foods—was actually invented somewhere else. After all, writers have called pimento cheese "a major southern institution," something that is "held sacred by Southerners" and is "so ingrained in the lives of many Southerners that we don't realize our passion for the stuff doesn't exist outside the region." How could pimento cheese, this most Southern of foods, possibly have been born outside the South?
Now, with a few years hindsight and a lot more research under my belt, I'm not so sure why I made such a big deal about where pimento cheese was invented. So many of the things considered to be iconic Southern foods today actually originated outside of the region. (We'll look at several more in upcoming installments.) The entire history of food, after all, is the story of ingredients and recipes migrating from one spot on the globe to another and being transferred between cultures, often being transformed in the process. Why should pimento cheese be any different?
No, what's more interesting about pimento cheese is not where it was born, but how it got where it is today. In its path through American food culture, it reversed the lapsarian pattern found in the tales of so many other dishes like cornbread and hoppin' john, and it took quite a different route than the "elevation" narrative you see with something like shrimp and grits, which began as a humble breakfast food and was elevated by Southern chefs into a fine-dining entrée.
No, pimento cheese got its start up North—in New York, in fact—as a product of industrial food manufacturing and mass marketing. Its story is one of redemption, of a wayward factory child adopted by a good Southern family, scrubbed up nice, and invited to Sunday dinner.
'Scientific' Home Cooking
Almost any pimento cheese recipe today calls for grated cheddar or a similarly firm cheese mixed with diced pimento peppers, mayonnaise, and any number of seasonings and special ingredients. Many cooks are quite adamant that you use homemade mayonnaise, while others start with fresh red peppers and roast them themselves. The original version started out as something quite different: the marriage of cream cheese and canned pimentos, two popular and newly-available products of the industrial food trade.
In the 1870s in New York State, farmers started making a soft, unripened cheese modeled after the French Neufchâtel. Within a few decades, at least five New York companies were marketing an American Neufchâtel, and they soon introduced cream cheese, a variant made by mixing cream with Neufchâtel curd and molding it into blocks in small rectangular wooden forms.
Though produced primarily in New York, cream cheese somehow became linked with the city of Philadelphia, and the New York-based Phenix Cheese became the market leader with its "Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese," which was later acquired by the Kraft Cheese Company.
Around the same time, sweet red peppers imported from Spain first became available in the Americas. In the 1887 edition of Miss Parloa's Kitchen Companion, Maria Parloa noted that these peppers, when green, are "much milder than the common bell-pepper, although they look so much alike it is often difficult to distinguish them." She recommended stuffing and baking them.
Within a decade, imported Spanish peppers were being canned and sold by large food manufacturers, which not only boosted their popularity but also introduced the Spanish name pimiento. By the turn of the century most print source had dropped the "i" and were calling the peppers "pimentos."
These two new, up-to-date products—cream cheese and red pimentos—were favorites of the practitioners of Domestic Science. Also known as "home economics," it was a women-led social reform movement that sought to bring order and scientific precision to all aspects of the home, with a particular emphasis on scientific cooking and a neat dinner table. Cream cheese was the perfect food for the Domestic Science sensibility. It was soft and mildly flavored, and its clean white color connoted purity. That it was something new and sold by modern food manufacturers only added appeal, for the Domestic Scientists were champions of industrial canning and scientific food packaging. Before long, they were devising any number of inventive ways to incorporate cream cheese into salads and hors d'oeuvres: rolling it into balls to serve in lettuce cups or combining it with nuts or herbs, and stuffing it into celery sticks and hollowed radishes.
The Domestic Scientists loved canned pimentos, too, especially their mild, inoffensive flavor and their flashy red color. In 1899, the editors of the Boston Cooking-School Magazine included a cauliflower and pimento salad on their Monday dinner menu for August, noting that, "on account of their brilliant color, pimentos are a pleasing addition to many a salad, and when used sparingly their sweet, mild flavor is usually relished."
The New Packaged Food
It was only a matter of time before the two ingredients were brought together. In 1908, an article in Good Housekeeping recommended sandwiches filled with a blend of soft cream cheese, mustard, chives, and minced pimentos. The following year, Eva Green Fuller's Up-to-Date Sandwich Book presented a more basic version of the pimento cheese sandwich: "Grind two small cans of pimentos with two cakes of Neufchatel cheese, and season with a little salt. Spread on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread." Dozens of similar recipes appeared in magazines and cookbooks in the years just before and after World War I.
It wasn't long before cheese manufacturers decided to save consumers some trouble and flavor their cheese in the factory. They ran pimentos through a mechanical chopper then mixed them into Neufchatel curd along with a pinch of red pepper just before the cheese was molded. Commercially-made pimento cheese burst on the market around 1910 and spread quickly across the country. In March 1910, grocers in Minnesota were advertising "Pimiento Cheese—Something New," and by April papers in North Dakota were running ads offering "Pimento cheese, something new, per jar . . . 20¢." Within a year, pimento cheese was available as far west as Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico and down South in Alabama and South Carolina, too. Most of the manufacturers appear to have been based in New York or Wisconsin.
The South may not have invented pimento cheese, but it did become the center of the nation's pimento growing and canning industry. Around 1911, when imported Spanish pimentos were an expensive but in-demand delicacy, farmers affiliated with the Georgia Experiment Station outside of Griffin, Georgia, began cultivating domestic pimentos. They developed the "Truhart Perfection" pimento and inventing a roasting machine that made peeling the peppers easier. By the 1920s, a flourishing pimento industry had developed in and around Griffin. 1938 was the peak year, with 25,000 acres under cultivation. The country's largest packer, Pomona Products Company of Griffin, was producing 10 million cans of pimentos per year.
Some have suggested that Georgia's huge pimento production was the reason that pimento cheese became much more popular in the South than elsewhere in the country. But, the peak of Georgia pimento production—the 1920s through the 1940s—corresponds directly with the national pimento cheese boom. Georgia pimentos were canned and shipped nationwide, and their availability seems to have increased the popularity of pimento cheese all over the country.
Before World War II, pimento cheese was mentioned in hundreds of newspaper stories and advertisements, but none of them describe it as being in any way a Southern thing. Instead, it is presented as an example of modern, up-to-date eating and something associated in particular with soda fountains and sandwich shops, where the pimento cheese sandwich became a lunchtime staple. To the extent that pimento cheese can be found in cookbooks, it's not presented as something cooks would make from scratch, but rather an ingredient they would buy from the store and use in recipes like finger sandwiches and pimento cheese-filled cucumbers.
Back to the Home
After World War II, the popularity of pimento cheese began to wane, and brands like Bluehil and Clover Hill disappeared from grocery store shelves. But somewhere along the line, Southern cooks took what originated as an industrial food product and started creating their own recipes for making it from scratch, in the process turning it into something truly delicious that is associated very closely with the South.
How this happened isn't exactly clear. I've not been able to find any first-hand accounts of Southerners making their own pimento cheese before World War II, though some authors looking backward in memoirs recall it vividly. Newspaper columnist Audrey Brooks Parker, who grew up in Texas, remembered her mother making pimento cheese sandwiches from scratch for her school lunches, noting that they were "mixed with Mamma's own homemade salad dressing." In Gadsden, Alabama: Stories of the Great Depression, Robert Wilbanks recalls that in that era "very few ingredients were prepackaged" and that, for their sandwiches, "the pimento cheese did not come from a store but was made at home by cutting and mixing 'hoop' cheese and pimentos from a jar."
Hoop cheese was a white cheese made by draining the whey from cottage cheese and pressing the curds in a round mold, creating a mild-flavored, semi-firm "hoop" of cheese. It was sold in country stores across the South in the first half of the 20th century, and my speculation is that some families used that widely-available cheese and canned pimentos to make their own approximation of manufactured pimento cheese. Was this a Depression-era economy measure? Perhaps: you could get a pound of hoop cheese for around 40 cents, while a five-ounce jar of pimento cheese ran 20 to 25 cents. But, it isn't clear whether prepacked pimento cheese was even available in most of the small country stores that served farming families.
In any event, replacing the cream cheese with hoop cheese (and, later, other store-bought firm cheeses like cheddar) seems to have been an essential step in creating today's Southern icon. Grated cheese needs something to bind it together, and mayonnaise fits the bill for that perfectly. From there, any number of other enhancements—from onions and mustard to lemon juice and jalapenos—could add new flavors and make a more interesting spread.
For the rest of the 20th century, pimento cheese sort of lingered in the background of Southern dining as a common but unheralded spread, showing up in sandwiches at family reunions and funerals and any other sort of gathering where home cooks contributed hor d'oeuvres. Much of it was brought home from the store in tubs or jars, and those cooks that made theirs from scratch probably used their own formulation since before the 1990 recipes for pimento cheese were rarely found in cookbooks.
"We definitely ate pimento cheese growing up," recalls Vivian Howard. She's the chef and co-owner of the Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, and the subject of the PBS documentary series A Chef's Life. She grew up in an area known as Deep Run in the heart of North Carolina tobacco country.
"It was something we bought at the grocery store, but we always had it," she says. "I remember my aunt made homemade pimento cheese and I ate it every time I went over to her house." There wasn't anything complicated about her aunt's recipe: just shredded cheddar, pimentos from a jar, mayonnaise, paprika, and a little cayenne, but Howard vividly remembers the difference. "It was so much better than what we got at the grocery store," she says.
A little over a decade ago, an increasing number of Southern writers and chefs started celebrating the humble spread they remembered being made by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, and they started publishing recipes for it and even putting in on restaurant menus. In 2003, the Southern Foodways Alliance staged the "Pimento Cheese Invitational" as part of its annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. More than 300 entrants submitted their recipes along with essays capturing the memories that made the food special to them. (Nan Davis won with her version of her Aunt Lella's pimento cheese, which used homemade mayonnaise and was seasoned with onion powder, red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and a pinch of sugar.)
Pimento cheese has now been transformed into a sort of fancy, all-purpose condiment that can add an instant Southern touch to just about any dish. Chefs stuff quail with it, tuck it inside omelets, and slather it between two fried green tomatoes to make a modern pan-Southern snack—creations never seen in the 20th century South.
Last year, Vivian Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, opened the Boiler Room Oyster Bar, their second Kinston restaurant, where they serve baked pimento cheese with sausage and crackers and also spread it on top of a chili burger. "That would have been blasphemous back then," Howard admits. "It was always just white bread and a very thin layer of pimento cheese."
Homemade pimento cheese may be a relatively new Southern culinary icon, but it's an icon nonetheless. To my mind, that basic sandwich is still the best way to enjoy pimento cheese today. If you want to get really fancy, slice off the crusts and cut the bread in diagonally into quarters to create little triangles. Stack them high on one of your best platters, lay them out on the buffet line, and watch them disappear.