Pimiento cheese, a Southern delicacy

Sunday, June 10, 2012
Pimiento cheese, the "pate of the South," served with a classic accompaniment, Ritz crackers. (TOM HARTE)

Charleston, S.C., knows a thing or two about revolutions. The siege of Charleston was a key battle of the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War started there when Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was fired upon.

These days the city is in the midst of yet another revolution -- a culinary one. Southern cooking is all the rage these days, and Charleston is at the center of it. In fact, Husk Restaurant, in a lovely 1893 Queen Anne home in the town center, was recently anointed by Bon Apptit magazine as the best new restaurant in America.

Last month, during a culinary sojourn to the South, I had the pleasure of dining at Husk, and though I have not eaten at every other new restaurant in the country (don't I wish?), I can tell you Bon Apptit's designation is credible. The food at Husk is a far cry from what is served at Paula Deen's place just a hundred miles or so down the road in Savannah, S.C.

Husk's focus is on the local ingredients of the South, and nothing on the menu comes from anywhere above the Mason-Dixon Line. The chef even refused to cook with olive oil until he located a source in Texas. It's all part of a concerted effort to rediscover what some have called America's greatest regional cuisine.

Not surprisingly I savored everything I ate at Husk, right down to the buttermilk pie, but truthfully, the best thing I ate on my visit to Dixie was not on the menu there. Instead it was an offering at the Gryphon Tea Room in Savannah, not far from the bench upon which Forrest Gump awaited the bus.

For Northerners just discovering it, pimiento cheese, the main ingredient in this grilled sandwich at the Gryphon Tea Room in Savannah, Ga., may seem to be the greatest culinary contribution of the South. (TOM HARTE)

It was a grilled pimiento cheese sandwich. Enhanced with onion confit and smoked bacon and served on jalapeno cornbread, it made me realize that as a person who did not grow up in the South, I have missed out all these years on what may be the greatest culinary contribution of the region.

Pimiento (correct pronunciation: PUH-minnuh) cheese, called the "pate of the South" and celebrated by Southern writers from Fannie Flagg to Reynolds Price, is little more than shredded cheddar cheese and diced pimiento peppers bound together with mayonnaise. But despite its simplicity, Southerners have firm opinions about what constitutes the authentic version. Some insist it must be chunky, others smooth; some call for Hellmann's mayonnaise, others Duke's (a Southern brand); and still others argue for the addition of dill pickles or onions or garlic or hot sauce. By comparison, there's practically a consensus about what constitutes real barbecue.

Ironically, though pimiento cheese is the iconic spread of the South, its origins may have actually been in Yankee territory when home economists up North, looking for ways to use newly created industrial food products, combined cream cheese and canned pimientos.

Though available nationwide for a while, before long it became a specialty of the South, where 80 percent of commercially packaged varieties are now sold. The fact that Georgia was once the pimiento capital of the country may have been conducive to this development.

Whatever the reason, it's too bad some Northerners have to wait until adulthood to discover it.

Gourmet pimiento cheese is made by blending homemade mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, pimientos and smoked paprika in a food processor. (TOM HARTE)

Gourmet Pimiento Cheese

This recipe, adapted from Thomas Keller of the famed French Laundry restaurant in California, takes pimiento cheese to new heights by starting with homemade mayonnaise and perking it up with crme fraiche and smoked paprika. (If a slight risk of salmonella worries you, be advised that the eggs in this recipe are uncooked.)

2 eggs

2 cups canola oil

6 tablespoons crme fraiche

3/4 pound coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

4 ounces canned pimientos, drained and chopped

Place eggs in food processor and while machine is running slowly add oil until an emulsion is formed. Add crme fraiche and 1/2 pound of the cheese and process until combined. Add paprika and season to taste with salt. Fold in chopped pimientos and remaining 1/4 pound shredded cheese.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702-0699.

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