What is the deal with your weird cheese?
Ok Atlantans, you’ll have to help me out here. WHAT IS UP WITH PIMIENTO CHEESE?!
This appears to be a uniquely Southern phenomenon. At least, I’d never heard of it ’til I moved here. This bizarre concoction seems, to me, to be something either (a) thought up by a total stoner or (b) having its origins in the weird better-living-through-science recipes of the 1950s, something that should be relegated to faded recipe cards along with savory jello salads containing cream and green beans. Yet here it is, in what I counted as four separate locations throughout my local Kroger. There’s even a high-rent version of it available, made with goat cheese.
A little research showed my pegging it among the artful presentations of cocktail weiners, chilled celery logs and “fluffy mackerel puddings” of the 1950s was actually incorrect. Now the Cheese Of The People, pimiento cheese was once considered a delicacy, appearing in the early 20th century alongside other elite fashionable foods, served at tea parties on crustless finger sandwiches. The high cost of cheese and pimiento peppers–imported at that time from Spain–made it a costly status dish, served to special guests in parlors. But with the advent of pasteurized processed cheese in 1915 and the cultivation of the peppers locally, pimiento cheese soon became ubiquitous in the Southern icebox–a staple grandma always had around. Its popularity was made even more democratic as textile mills and factories began providing it, along with other “cafeteria”-style foods to their workers.
Tonight at Yeah Burger in Virginia-Highlands, I tried my first pimiento cheese. Being a snobbish foodie from LA, I was ready to be horrified by such a lowly concoction, comprised of mayo, cream cheese, cheddar and, of course, pimientos, which I hadn’t eaten since accidentally ingesting them as a child, in purloined olives out of a jar. It arrived on my burger in a garish smear of artificial-looking carrot orange, grease separating from its creamier bits and running off the burger to pool in the paper wrapper. What appeared as an opaque, thick and creamy substance in containers at the grocery store, once slapped on a hot sandwich, melted into something that looked like it should be used to lube an auto engine. But it was…delicious.
Of course, it’s a furtive kind of pleasure I’m taking in it. This bastard love child of …what’s in it? I bought some at the store. The first ingredient is IMITATION American cheese. That’s right, the first ingredient is partially hydrogenated soybean oil. I’m not supposed to like this stuff! It’s not NATURAL! It’s origins are in a chemistry lab, not a dairy farm! But then I reflected on my obsessive love for Easter Peeps, and I realized–the housewives of the 50s, with their “Frankfurter Spectaculars” and their jellied salmon mousses, were right. Better living IS to be had through chemistry.
And the doyenne of Southern cooking herself, Ms. Paula Deen, offers up a pimiento cheese recipe that calls for actual cheese, not artificial cheese. So perhaps there’s some hope to be had. I, too, can court diabetes through the piquant zestiness of homemade pimiento cheese.
So fess up, Atlantans. Where do you find the best pimiento cheese in the South? And where is the worst?