You would be appalled at what I knew (and loved) as pimento cheese as a youngster in St. Paul, Minnesota. Even though my mother was an excellent, daily-from-scratch cook, one of the items in her refrigerator was my favorite snack, Kraft pimento cheese, in a tiny, slender jar.
Eee gads, folks! This probably did not have any cheese in it at all but I did not care because I did not know any better at the time (hey I was eight.) I loved it on celery sticks the most and my mom would make it for me after school. It was always on her ‘relish’ tray (remember those?) for company dinners and holidays. I eschewed the black olives and the radishes though and went straight for the celery stick with the tangy cheese spread I couldn’t get enough of.
Vintage silver relish tray.
Photo by Rebecca Penovich.
Years later when I arrived at college in the South (Nashville, Tennesee to be specific), pimento cheese was on the counter at every single gas station along with a giant jar of pickled eggs. But man, this pimento cheese wasn’t anything I had seen before. In fact, it looked gross. Lurid orange, gloppy, maybe even sweaty. Needless to say, I wasn’t having any of that.
Eventually during my sojourn in the South, I was invited to the gracious Southern home of a well-bred Southern hostess whom I admired very much, and what did she serve? Yes, pimento cheese. But lordy, this wasn’t the gas station variety. This was creamy, tangy, fresh, redolent of good mayonnaise and maybe a tiny bit of onion. The red pimentos folded in were real, for goodness sake! I LOVED it all over again. On celery sticks (de-stringed if you are fancy), on Carr’s water crackers, on Pepperidge Farm thin white bread and cut into triangles, if you please. On a wrap-around porch beneath a towering magnolia and served in a lovely, small silver bowl, please.
Here is an authentic and guaranteed recipe for Classic Pimento Cheese that I clipped from Southern Living May 2010. It never fails to please my Southern-born and -bred friends and more often will elicit spontaneous recollections of their beloved grandmothers or great-aunts (the ones that entertained) or the beloved family cook of the grandmother (depending how far you go back).
Every well-stocked kitchen needs a box grater.
The absolute secret to getting this right is two-fold: hand-grate the cheese on a box grater and use two different size shreds, one medium and one fine. Seriously, don’t use the food processor and don’t skip the fine shred. Yes, it will require a little more elbow grease, but lean in, people, this is pimento cheese we’re talking about!
Our Favorite Pimento Cheese
(adapted from Southern Living May 2010)
1 1/2 cups good-quality mayonnaise (Hellman’s or Duke’s)
16 oz. sharp Cheddar cheese (you can buy 2 8 oz. blocks if you prefer since you WILL be grating them separately)
1 4 oz. jar diced pimento, drained
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce (we use Lee & Perrin’s)
1 tsp. finely grated yellow onion
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
- In a large bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, drained pimentos, grated onion, Worcestershire sauce, and cayenne pepper until blended.
- Shred 8 oz. of cheddar on the small size of a box grater and add to the mayonnaise mixture.
- Shred another 8 oz. of cheddar on the large size of a box grater and add that to the mayonnaise mixture.
- Fold gently until nicely blended.
Taste and enjoy! Pimento cheese will keep in the refrigerator (in a tightly closed container) for up to a week.
(Note: You can use artisanal white cheddar but the classic recipe (and look) calls for the orange cheddar. I love English farmhouse white cheddars on my cheese board, but if I’m making pimento cheese, I’ll buy a good quality, sharp, orange cheddar cheese.)
Southern Living calls for toasted pecans in their favorite pimento cheese, but we say skip that, and serve the toasted pecans on the side.
(Other Note: we couldn’t stop eating the pimento cheese and crackers when shooting it for this post. “It’s better to have 3 crackers in the shot than 5,” we said as we chomped. Oh yeah. “This reminds me of Alabama!” Allison exclaimed, remembering a trip to a favorite relative’s house there.)