I have no memory of when or where I ﬁrst encountered it.
Maybe I found it by chance in our family fridge or maybe my mother or someone else’s smeared it between white squishy bread slices on one of the Sunday evening occasions we called “nicnacs” and everyone else we knew called picnics. These communal meals were attended and consumed by several young families growing up together in what was then a new and growing Haymount neighborhood.
Our nicnacs were held at dusk near Lake Rim under a picnic shed, and the various daddies competed with each other to see who could avoid feeding spare change into the light meters to keep all of us from plunging into pitch black darkness.
All I know for sure is that I have adored pimento cheese since the moment it ﬁrst crossed my lips.
It was a staple in my family of origin, as the sociologists say, and remains so in my family of now. When there is nothing else with which to create a sandwich, nothing else to put on a cracker, nothing else to eat out of the container, there is always pimento cheese.
It is eaten on sandwiches dressed up with tomatoes and other vegetables, as a grilled cheese treat, on burgers with dill pickles and other condiments and on egg sandwiches. I do buy PC in the grocery store, but the best is always homemade, especially if you make your own mayonnaise — easy using a food processor.
Basic PC is shredded cheddar cheese and pimentos held together with mayonnaise and salt and pepper in whatever proportions one likes, but there are many variations.
The version I took to a Precious Jewel’s birthday party earlier this year included two kinds of cheese, lots of garlic, and dill pickles — I think I see a trend emerging here. There are also unwritten rules of what not to include —anything really crunchy, anything that is not really mayonnaise, and — heaven forbid! — processed cheese or “cheese food.”
Another Precious Jewel attended college in New York City where most students were, well, “not from here.” Occasionally some of Big Apple friends would visit us in Fayetteville, and I delighted in serving them PC, homemade and otherwise. Not a one of them had ever heard of it, much less eaten it and every one of them fell immediately in love. To be fair, they loved other things about the South as well, “bless your heart” being a particular favorite, but PC was deﬁ nitely high on the list. I even gave out recipes.
Apparently, these young people were in the avant garde of an emerging trend, because my old favorite, pimento cheese, is white hot in the food world right now.
My ﬁrst inkling of this trend was a story on National Public Radio extolling its virtues followed several years later by an issue of Our State magazine featuring a scrumptious-looking grilled PC sandwich on the cover. Various “gourmet” versions are popping up in groceries as well.
A quick Google search shows the food press is now all over PC as a yummy regional dish taking on the luster of sophistication like a hometown girl made good in the big city. And just last month a spate of wide-circulation newspaper pieces, including one reprinted locally, has focused the spotlight on our once humble favorite, including photographs mouth-watering enough to send me running to the fridge for a PC ﬁx.
Imagine my delight when I learned that one of the pimento cheese gurus featured, Emily Wallace, is a good friend of a good friend. My guess is that she is the world’s reigning expert on pimento cheese, having written a 100+ page master’s thesis on that delicious topic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I emailed Emily pronto, and she was kind enough to share a copy with me, and I look forward to devouring it soon — not literally, of course.
Emily’s academic takes on PC include that it is one of the rare foods which spans the economic spectrum. Since its inception in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, it has managed to show up regularly at both the tea parties of ladies who lunch and in the lunch bags of workers in textile, tobacco and furniture factories.
Southerners who ﬁnd ourselves living “somewhere else” miss PC and talk about it with each other the way ex-pats around the world talk about their home countries. PC launched and sustained proﬁ table businesses, several commanded by women who created their products in their home kitchens for sale in groceries and from lunch and snack carts in various workplaces.
People are protective of their PC recipes, especially those handed down from Mama and Grandma, and we all like it “our way,” whatever that might be.
Most of Precious Jewel’s Big Apple chums are still way above the Mason-Dixon Line, and it amuses me to think of them now ordering the latest in pimento cheese cuisine from the menus of city restaurants.
Wonder if it is served on ﬂax seed bread with assorted organic greens for a modest $15 plus tax and tip?
Photo: Pimento Cheese, long a Southern favorite is beginning to turn heads in the culinary world. Made from shredded cheese and pimento, it is the ideal snack when nothing else will do.