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Spatula Diaries: Pimento cheese sparks strong feelings

Love it or hate it? Pimento cheese is a touchy topic. Photo courtesy of Maggie Heyn Richardson.

Immediately following the 2015 Masters golf tournament, the Los Angeles-based business radio show Marketplace reported how far your dollar goes at August National when it comes to concessions. Turns out, it goes a long way at the elite country club due in part to signature pimento cheese sandwiches that fetch all of $1.50 a pop. This prompted an interesting response from host Kai Ryssdal.

“Pimen-toe cheese sandwiches,” he said slowly, adding under his breath, “whatever they are…”

You could feel the collective cringe of Southerners stung by Ryssdal’s culinary high hat, and more than that, by what seemed an apparent lack of interest in the beloved regional dish.

Dozens of listeners fired off emails to Ryssdal, giving him a Southern sandwich spanking. Days later, the host remained unrepentant. “Okay, now that I know what pimento cheese actually is …,” he posted, “… um … I’ll pass.”

He’ll pass. 

Well.

My blood sorta boiled. But, truth is, maybe that’s fair. On the face of it, a mushy amalgam of grated cheese, jarred pimiento peppers and mayo might sound repellent to anyone not raised on this combo. Think about it too long and pimento cheese sounds as imaginative, really, as sandwiches of butter and sugar, or worse yet, ketchup and mayo.

But for those who embrace its unapologetic hue and calorie content, there is nothing like quite like pimento cheese. This is the stuff of a shadowy kitchen at midnight where nobody sees you unearthing forkfuls from a plastic tub to spread on crackers or force into celery stalks.

For so many of us Southerners, it’s also comforting funeral food. When my stepfather of nearly 30 years died last May in my hometown, Columbus, Georgia, my family was brought no less than six different gifts of pimento cheese, some already carefully spread between crustless bread. Our friends had embraced us in several shades of orange.

Last year, Garden and Gun, the pinnacle of Southern coolness, excerpted a pimento cheese recipe from Charleston chef’s Sean Brock’s cookbook Heritage. It’s a souped up version spiked with, among other ingredients, sugar and pickled ramps. (As soon as this working mother of three gets her hands on some pickled ramps, she’ll give this recipe a try.) Naturally, the purists were apoplectic upon reading it, and left plenty o’ comments about the importance of pimento cheese’s prescribed boundaries. In my opinion, annoying ramps aside, it looked pretty tasty.

Louisiana isn’t the heart of pimento cheese land — that’s claimed by the Carolinas — but we do have our fair share of fans and buying opportunities. Red Stick Farmers Market vendor Tanya Dillon makes and sells a homemade version of puh-menur cheese, as she laughingly calls it. It’s a tried and true family dish among her North Louisiana forbears, and was often incorporated in white bread “fold-overs.” Dillon’s classic formula, which you can pick up in person on Thursdays and Saturdays, calls for sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated onion, Worcestershire sauce, pimentos, salt, black peppers, a little milk “to keep it from being too mayonnaise-y,” and of course, a generous helping of mayo — Hellman’s or homemade.

Gourmet versions of pimento cheese are also a fixture at Whole Foods Markets throughout the south from the Carolinas to Texas. Smoked Gouda is the most popular variety in Baton Rouge, says Louisiana Community and Media Relations Coordinator Kristina Bradford. The store also sells jalapeño, bacon bleu cheese and sometimes hatch pepper, which uses chiles from Hatch, New Mexico. Demand for pimento cheese was high enough several years ago for Whole Foods to develop its own pimento cheese recipe, and in the southwest region (which includes Louisiana), that recipe is made offsite by Zilks Foods in Austin.

So mixed by hand or sent through a standing mixer; thick with pimentos or not, studded with interlopers or prepared minimally … pimento cheese provokes debate. And sometimes, it screams family and soothes the soul.

Now, if Kai Ryssdal would just give it a chance.

Maggie Heyn Richardson is a regular 225 contributor and the author of Hungry for Louisiana, An Omnivore’s Journey (LSU Press, 2015). Reach her at hungryforlouisiana.com


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