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23 October, 2015

Reviewing the History of Southern Pimento Cheese Spread

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Reviewing the History of Southern Pimento Cheese

Sometimes my mind and taste buds just take over and drive me to  a taste of back home. It can be muscadines, wild blackberries, wild plums, fresh roasted peanuts, deviled eggs and one of my most versatile favorites, pimento cheese spread. With a block of sharp cheddar cheese, some good quality mayonnaise, roasted bell peppers or pimentos and a few other dashes of ingredients, this mixture can add swag to hundreds of recipes. But I wonder where did this gooey-luscious concoction come from? I used to eat it with just saltines and some hogs head cheese in the Summer, here in Mississippi. It would be my lunch when I was hauling hay. I would keep it cold by freezing a recycled plastic milk jug with water in the evening so I could also have cold water to drink. The red bell peppers would come from the garden and they would be roasted. A few other ingredients added and let it set in the refrigerator overnight and !boom! Before I get to carried away here I want to share some research I did recently on this Southern favorite. You might be a little surprised. “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.” (Serious Eats, 2015)

One of the rarities of the relationship between North and South is to have something in common. Pimento cheese is a product that started in New York….yes, folks…New York. ”

“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.” (Serious Eats, 2015)

Of course, In a way, the best Pimento cheese spread was invented in the South. The cheese went from Neufchatel curd to Philadelphia cream cheese to what is the standard sharp cheddar cheese. (If you want to use the sharp white cheddar, just add annetto.) Seems like someone decided to take advantage of canned pimentos, and shredded cheese, added a pinch of red pepper right before the cheese molded, did some marketing for, “pimento cheese” and there it was. It soon spread to the Southern states after it’s beginnings in the West. Here’s where things turned South. Seems that those Spanish pimentos were to costly and so the State of Georgia (Griffin) started cultivating some domestic pimentos, invented a roasting machine that made peeling the peppers easy and by 1920, there was a prosperous pimento industry in Griffin. By 1938, there were 25,000 acres of pimentos being cultivated. Before World War II, pimento cheese advertisements bombarded the public all over the USA. after World War II, it’s popularity began to Neufchatel curd. Find out what happened here.

Here’s one of my favorite recipes that I still had in my head for over 35 years.

Mississippi Pimento Cheese recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 cup mayonnaise or Mississippi Comeback Sauce
  • 1 7-oz jar pimentos, drained and finely diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Directions:

Just combine everything together. It is best served cold so I would let it set overnight. Beware: If you start taste testing it, it will start calling you back and before you know it, it’s gone. Especially if you got some celery sticks laying around. It is great on hamburgers, grilled ham and cheese, even grilled hot dogs. Again, the list is endless. First, just try out this simple recipe and I’m sure you will want to add it to many things.

Article excerpts courtesy of Serious Eats..

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