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A Pimento Cheese Festival? Yep, and it's Saturday in downtown Cary

Pimento cheese is finding a home in new places. At Cure Delicatessen and Cafe in Durham, it's part of the Number Five, a breakfast bagel with a fried smoked chicken thigh and baked egg. On Saturday, Cary will hold its first Pimento Cheese Festival.
Pimento cheese is finding a home in new places. At Cure Delicatessen and Cafe in Durham, it's part of the Number Five, a breakfast bagel with a fried smoked chicken thigh and baked egg. On Saturday, Cary will hold its first Pimento Cheese Festival. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Pimento cheese deserves to be celebrated.

At least the town of Cary thinks so. The first-ever Pimento Cheese Festival in Cary is scheduled for Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Academy Street downtown.

The celebration of the Southern staple — a spread made of cheese, mayonnaise, pimentos and seasonings — will feature food trucks, beer and wine, live music and, yes, cheese sculpting.

Ryan O'Quinn, the festival's chief organizer, is a program specialist in Cary's Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources. As far as he knows, Saturday's event is unique among American festivals.

"This is the only pimento cheese festival that we could find," O'Quinn said. "There were a few events that had pimento cheese events with them but nothing that focused just on pimento cheese."

O'Quinn could well be right. In a Google search for "pimento cheese festival," the first 12 results were Saturday's celebration in Cary. No. 13 was the third annual Pimento Cheese 5K and Throwdown, held in 2016 in Bethania, a town near Winston-Salem.

O'Quinn said the Pimento Cheese Festival grew out of Cary's Downtown Chowdown, a food truck rodeo. "With so many food truck rodeos in the area, we wanted to make one that was a little different," he said.

So how did O'Quinn and his fellow event organizers settle on pimento cheese?

"Southern food has really started to gain in popularity over the years, with items like shrimp and grits and fried chicken being served in fancy restaurants," O'Quinn said. "And now you are starting to see things like pimento cheese on starter menus."

RAL_ CURE3-FE-051618-JEL.JPG
Pimento cheese is finding a home in new places. At Cure Delicatessen and Cafe in Durham, it's part of the Number Five, a breakfast bagel with a fried smoked chicken thigh and baked egg. On Saturday, Cary will hold its first Pimento Cheese Festival. Julie Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

O'Quinn said he had also started to see pimento cheese being used to enhance other items — burgers, barbecue, etc. "And we thought it would be interesting to see it expanded a little, and that it is really how it all started," he said. "As we discussed the idea with a few other people, we started to get some really passionate responses and decided to go for it."

On Saturday, all food trucks, except those serving dessert items or ice cream, will be serving at least one pimento cheese item, O'Quinn said. "Some of the trucks already had pimento cheese items, and almost all of the trucks have chefs that like to be challenged a little, so it really wasn't too hard to convince them to be part of the event," he said.

What food is O'Quinn looking forward to sampling on Saturday? Queso Monster's lobster and pimento cheese quesadilla; the Humble Pie's Pulp Fiction, a sandwich with brisket, pimento cheese, slaw and hot sauce; and the fried pimento cheese pie from Gussy's Greek.

Food trucks aren't the only eateries taking part in Saturday's festival. Seven downtown restaurants — Crosstown Pub, Postmaster, Once in a Blue Moon Bakery & Cafe, La Farm, the Mayton Inn and the Upper Deck — will give out samples of their pimento cheese, and they will have some cheese items for sale, O'Quinn said.

For the sculpting contest, the festival will choose 12 attendees to sculpt an item that will be revealed to them one minute before the contest starts. "They will be able to use their hands, and then we will give them a sculpting tool to help with the fine details," O'Quinn said, adding that contestants will have five minutes to create their work.

"We wanted a contest that would be a little messy but didn't want to just do an eating contest," O'Quinn said.

And what cheese will the contestants sculpt? Pimento, of course.

"It will be a special recipe to make it a little thicker and more like a clay — not the best tasting pimento cheese though," O'Quinn said. "Each contestant will get about a pound and a half to work with."

Registration for the contest opened Wednesday; contact information will be available at https://bit.ly/2HojFDu.

In addition to food, beer and wine will be available on Saturday, and two bands will perform: the Mysti Mayhem Trio from 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. and Soul Psychedelique from 2 to 4 p.m.

Saturday's festival is a rain-or-shine event.

Scott Bolejack: 919-829-4629, @ScottBolejack
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