Pimento Cheese; a Southern Classic
Hands up who’s heard of Pimento Cheese? Chances are that unless you’re from the Southern United States, at this very moment your eyebrows are raised in puzzlement. At least mine were, when the cheese was first described to me.
However, last week I met with Martha Davis Kipcak, a Texas native, stellar cook, producer of Pimento cheese and general “tour de force”. Martha, who moved to Wisconsin twelve years ago, is also thoroughly involved in the Slow Food movement as well as several other sustainable food and community oriented endeavors.
Upon her arrival in the Dairy State, she was amazed at the lack of availability or even knowledge of her favorite staple, Pimento Cheese. However, like most Southern cooks, she set about making it herself for home use, adjusting the recipe to her liking and finessing the final product.
Although commercial Pimento cheese is widely available in Southern grocery stores, it hasn’t appeared to make the transition further afield. In the same breath, the commercial product appears to bears no resemblance at all to the home made version - as I was about to find out.
So what is Pimento Cheese? As noted above, individual recipes vary widely. However, the basic ingredients include grated sharp cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, pimentos, salt and pepper. Other additions can include peppers such as cayenne or jalapenos, paprika, onions, pickles and hot sauce. It is usually eaten slathered between two slices of white bread or used as a dip with celery or crackers.
These are mixed together to form a kind of spread which in the case of the store bought stuff is often pretty gluey. Martha’s home made version bears a certain visual resemblance to egg salad - at least from a distance. Upon closer inspection (see photo), it is much more chunky and the individual ingredients are easily identifiable.
With my cheese “hat” on here, I confess to a natural caution when it comes to tasting cheeses with lots of added ingredients - and especially peppers - for the first time. This no doubt stems from being ambushed one too many times by cheeses submitted at competitions.
However, I needn’t have worried. Martha’s Pimento Cheese is a wonderful blend of balanced flavors where its possible to taste the cheese without reaching for the nearest glass of water or a fire extinguisher. It's clear that each of the ingredients she uses is of the highest quality and mostly locally sourced. However, thi sis definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
So Martha’s new project is to set about producing the cheese on a small-scale, yet commercial basis. It is still early days, but I have a strong feeling that if anyone can sell a Southern Cheese to the Dairy State, Martha can. I know that I will certainly be lining up for it.