I was on a grocery run at my usual supermarket when I noticed something remarkable. After decades of finding only one or two varieties of pimiento cheese squirreled away in the dark recesses of a back dairy case, the store now had stacks of it in a prominent spot near the produce department.
I counted: There were about 15 different kinds.
With chefs making their own pimiento cheese and the spread showing up on menus atop hamburgers, in dips and even as fried fritters, Id long suspected that this lowly spread of the masses was benefiting from the current national love of Southern edibles. But when a Cary supermarket is chock-full of it, pimiento cheese has truly taken a big step away from its roots.
Pimiento cheese was my peanut butter growing up, as it was for a lot of Southerners. There are many reasons why, and Durham writer Emily E. Wallace enumerates them all in her masters thesis on pimiento cheese. Its fascinating, and you should find it online ( http://tinyurl.com/bwkh8q5). The major points are that pimiento peppers were widely grown in the South by the late 1920s and cheese became less expensive. Pimiento cheese sandwiches became both a inexpensive lunch for textile workers to carry to mills and a delicacy for tea rooms and church suppers, she writes.
So pimiento cheese has always lived a kind of double life, as both the spread of the people and girlie food. Today, pimiento cheese has gone to town.
I called my friend, writer and food fan Claire Cusick in Durham, to come over and taste some with me. She had a peanut-butter childhood in Pittsburgh, but has embraced pimiento cheese so much that youd hardly know she wasnt Southern-bred.
We conducted an unscientific but well-considered comparison of North Carolina-made pimiento cheeses found in your average suburban super-sized grocery store, plus one I sought out on the basis of raves Id heard about it.
We looked at 10 varieties from five makers and broke them into three categories: classic, gourmet and variations. Classic is the old-fashioned kind of pimiento cheese: a little (or a lot) sweet, and spreadable for sandwiches, with a mild cheese flavor. Gourmet uses fancier cheeses. For variations, anything goes.
Two of the three classic styles we sampled were too sweet for us, even considering its OK for it to be a little sweet. Our favorite of this type was Our Pride, which was not as sweet, with chunks in its smooth texture and a freshly made flavor. It didnt scream cheese. But with this style, you dont expect a big burst of sharp Cheddar.
Id heard people talk about Our Pride for years, but its not easy to find. I had to drive to the plant in Roxboro to get it because I couldnt find it in Triangle stores.
In the gourmet category, texture became an issue. Augustas, made in Charlotte, was like a grainy paste, although it had good cheese flavor and a hint of mustard. We felt it wasnt grilled-pimiento-cheese-sandwich-worthy, because it lost firmness quickly as it approached room temperature.
My Three Sons Emmys Original, a relatively new brand made in Greensboro, was very thick with a good cheese flavor and a slightly sweet aftertaste. The texture turned off Claire, while the sweet aftertaste bugged me. (Maybe the flavor came from the corn syrup in the all natural mayonnaise listed on the label.)
We moved on to variations. Our Prides jalapeno didnt have much jalapeno flavor. And despite the containers claim of all the flavor, not the fire, Augustas jalapeno was pretty doggone hot (still with that odd texture). We thought it would be good for melting over nachos. My Three Sons had a balanced combination of heat and cheese flavor.
Augustas makes an olive flavor that we thought tasted like an olive dip, not pimiento cheese. The label does not list pimentos as an ingredient, so I would make a case for our opinion.
My Three Sons Spicy White Cheddar includes jalapenos, and we suspected cayenne was among the secret spices. It has heat, but it doesnt overpower the cheese flavor. The texture was chunkier, pleasing Claire more than the original version.
Considering flavor and texture, our overall favorite was My Three Sons Spicy White Cheddar. I still believe theres a place for classic pimiento cheese, so I bucked Claire to give a nod to Our Pride as well.
In a sign of just how gourmet humble pimiento cheese has become, a 10-ounce tub of My Three Sons or a 12-ounce tub of Augustas runs more than $6. The classic kinds cost about half that.
We didnt even consider the restaurants, markets and old-fashioned soda fountains that make their own pimiento cheese, nor a variety from South Carolina that is showing up in grocery stores.
Take those into consideration, and its clear theres an orange wave sweeping the country. Just pass me the light bread.
The best pimiento cheese is often homemade. Heres my recipe.
For a printable copy of the recipe, click the link:
GRATE the cheeses to a medium-chunky texture. I like to use the meat grinder attachment on my stand mixer to make a rounder shred rather than flat strips. Put the grated cheeses in a large bowl.
CHOP the onion into coarse chunks. Put the onion and garlic through the grinder or finely chop in a food processor. Stir them into the cheeses. Add the mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, pimientos and cayenne pepper, and stir well to combine. Taste, then add salt and pepper as needed.
COVER the bowl and refrigerate at least 8 hours, or overnight, before serving. YIELD: About 8 servings