One of the South’s favorite all-occasion foods is pimento cheese.
Anne Byrn, a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says pimento cheese is ideal for fishing trips, family reunions, church socials, funerals and even weddings.
Pure and basic, pimento cheese is in a food group of its own.
Some epicurists attempt to dress up pimento cheese as the “pâté of the South.” Is that a back-handed compliment? Do you know what French chefs put into their precious pâtés? Could be liver or wild game.
No thanks. Make mine plain pimento cheese, using extra sharp white Vermont cheddar, Duke’s mayonnaise and Georgia-grown pimentos.
Pimento cheese probably originated in 1870 somewhere up north and trickled down. However, Kathleen Purvis, writing for the Charlotte Observer in 2011, found one food historian who begs to differ. She interviewed Rick McDaniel of Asheville, author of "An Irresistible History of Southern Food."
“I have no doubt (pimento cheese is Southern),” says McDaniel. “I’ve never seen a pimento cheese recipe from a purely Northern cookbook.”
Purvis also cited Durham food writer Emily Wallace, who earned her master’s degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She wrote her 80-page thesis on pimento cheese, with an emphasis on the role that pimento cheese played as a product for female entrepreneurs in the South.
In 1917 – 101 years ago – Eugenia Duke (founder of Duke’s Mayonnaise) began selling pimento cheese sandwiches in Greenville, SC, to the US Army soldiers assigned to Camp Sevier, a National Guard training center. She charged a dime and made 2 cents profit per sandwich.
At the same time, Eugenia Duke was serving pimento cheese at a tea room in a nice hotel in Greenville (with a much greater profit margin).
Wallace determined that 80% of all pimento cheese spreads are sold in 11 Southeastern markets, and the two largest are Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte.
Food writer Robert Moss of Charleston, SC, said the South emerged as the center of the pimento growing and canning industry in the United States, particularly Georgia.
(Pimentos are a type of small, round, red pepper with a sweet flavor and very mild heat. Pimentos are also known as cherry peppers and are full of nutritional value, loaded with vitamins A, C and K.)
Moss continued: “Around 1911, when imported Spanish pimentos were an expensive but in-demand delicacy, farmers affiliated with the Georgia Experiment Station outside of Griffin, Ga., began cultivating domestic pimentos.”
Samuel D. Riegel and his sons pioneered the agricultural effort. By the 1920s, a flourishing pimento industry had developed in and around Griffin. The Riegels formed Pomona Products Company, and the company became the nation’s leading producer and packer of pimentos. The business was acquired by Moody Dunbar, Inc., in 1933. (Company brands include Dromedary and Sunshine.)
Emily Wallace insists pimentos are essential to the recipe, both for taste and color. Early Kraft advertisements claimed the pimentos peeked through, shining and sparkling “like rubies.”
Freelance journalist Wright Bryan commented in a report for National Public Radio: “While it’s the taste that keeps me coming back to pimento cheese, it was the process of making it that first hooked me. We used a hand-crank meat grinder that clamped onto the side of a (kitchen) counter. Feeding the ingredients into that little mechanical beast was the kind of destructive thrill that all little boys enjoy.”
Anne Byrn wrote that her daughter, Kathleen, is married to Graham Osteen. Graham’s mother, Julie Osteen, “is known for her pimento cheese – so well known that I was a little nervous about putting pimento cheese crostini on the appetizer menu at the wedding reception because we weren’t sure it could live up to hers.”
“I texted Julie in Georgetown, SC, and begged for her recipe. Or at least, her pimento cheese secrets,” Byrn said.
She replied: “I have several ingredients that I believe can make pimento cheese ‘a cut above.’ I use half mayo (Duke’s, of course) and half softened cream cheese, grated Vidalia onion, diced pickled jalapeño and jalapeño juice (sparingly), as well as cayenne pepper for heat, and 3-to-1 extra sharp cheddar cheese to Vermont cheddar. I add salt and pepper as needed.” (Julie Osteen also prefers roasted red peppers in place of pimentos but that requires more work and an extra step.)
Other variations: Writer Wright Bryan also runs two medium-sized dill pickles through his meat grinder to go into his pimento cheese; celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck uses four different kinds of cheeses, celery salt and chili sauce when he makes pimento cheese; and country music vocalist Trisha Yearwood adds garlic, mustard powder and hot sauce to her pimento cheese recipe.
That’s part of the beauty of the dish. There are no wrong answers with pimento cheese, but a multitude of ways to tickle those taste buds.
Carolina Brands of Pimento Cheese Are Coming on Strong
Longtime occupants of the refrigerated cheese sections in local grocery stores – containers of Ruth’s, Stan’s and Star’s pimento cheese products, all made-in-North Carolina brands – are sliding over or scrunching closer together in order to open up some shelf space for new arrivals.
Two brands, Palmetto Cheese and MyThreeSons Gourmet, are relative newcomers with interesting product development stories.
When Sassy and Brian Henry left Atlanta in 2002, as the new owners of the Sea View Inn on Pawleys Island, SC, they retained the entire staff, including longtime cooks and sisters Myrtle Edwards and Vertrella Brown, who were raised on Pawleys Island and specialize in Gullah and Lowcountry cuisine.
With 20 guest rooms and a dining room that seats 60, the Sea View Inn is frequently described as “elegantly shabby.” (Pawleys Island is located off Hwy 17, below Myrtle Beach and about 13 miles northeast of Georgetown.)
Sassy handed off her pimento cheese recipe to Vertrella Brown, who added her own “secret blend of Lowcountry spices” and began producing it in 2003 for guests to enjoy. The spread became known as Palmetto Cheese. The ingredients include Wisconsin sharp cheddar cheese, cream cheese, pimentos and onions (along with Vertrella’s spices).
Vertrella’s image is on the lid of each container, “personifying the soulful flavor embodied in the recipe, which is labeled as “The Pimento Cheese with Soul.”
Palmetto Cheese products are wholesaled by Pawleys Island Specialty Foods, which was founded in 2006 on Pawleys Island. Products are now being manufactured for the company by Duke Food Productions in Easley, SC.
Cheryl Barnett’s story with MyThreeSons began when her family moved to Tallassee, Ala., located about midway between Montgomery and Auburn. She was 10, and her first new friend in the fourth grade was Susan Emfinger. They have continued to remain best friends.
Susan’s mother’s name is Linda, but Cheryl has always called her “Emmy” and looks up to her as the best Southern cook in the world. “I have enjoyed every single morsel of Emmy’s food, but there is nothing I have loved more, or eaten more of, than her famous pimento cheese,” Cheryl said.
“After high school, I left Tallassee to attend the University of Alabama, where I went through major pimento cheese and Emmy withdrawals,” Cheryl said. “Without fail, every time I came home to visit, Emmy had a big bowl of pimento cheese waiting for me in the refrigerator. When I arrived, it became our routine to greet each other and have a quick catch-up, and then came the words I loved to hear: ‘It’s in the fridge, sweet.’”
Pimento cheese and crackers for a snack, a pimento cheese and tomato sandwich for dinner, another pimento cheese snack before bed and bacon and pimento cheese toast for breakfast.
After college, Cheryl moved to Chapel Hill to attend dental school and complete an orthodontic residency at the UNC-School of Dentistry. (As an aside, while a student, she was the Ram, Carolina’s mascot.)
In Chapel Hill, she got married and gave birth to her first son. Later, she moved to Greensboro and established an orthodontic practice. She would have two more children, both boys.
It was a happy day when Emmy shared her pimento cheese recipe. Cheryl kept saying: “One of these days, I am going to sell it in the grocery store for all those people with busy lives like mine. So began what I refer to as my ‘pimento cheese factory fantasy.’”
“Before I knew it, 15 years had passed. During that time, I encountered, as we all do, a few bumps and detours in life. After years of struggling with back problems that often accompany a career in dentistry, my retirement came earlier than I would have liked. Happily, during that time, I married my second husband, Mark Barnett.”
(Motocross fans know Mark Barnett as “The Bomber,” who was one of the giants in the sport in the early 1980s. He won three American Motorcycle Association (AMA) 125cc national championships and was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2001. Now, he is a highly sought-after track builder.)
Finally, in 2010, with Mark Barnett’s full endorsement, MyThreeSons Gourmet pimento cheese factory opened for business in Greensboro, producing three varieties.
Cheryl said: “I have loved every minute of my transformation from Dr. Cheryl to The Cheese Lady.”
As for the old standbys, Ruth’s, Stan’s and Star’s have developed multiple generations of loyal pimento cheese customers.
Ruth’s Salads of Charlotte and Star Food Products of Burlington each formed in 1953. Stan’s Quality Foods, also of Burlington, came along somewhat later, as founder Stanford “Stan” Hudgins diversified his open air market business.
Today, all three companies continue as family owned and operated businesses.