What We’re Cooking This Week: Pimento Cheese

While Southerners may still claim it as their own, these days pimento cheese is everywhere, although it’s changed from the original version.

Pimento cheese. (Jim Dixon)

Jim Dixon wrote about food for WW for more than 20 years, but these days most of his time is spent at his olive oil-focused specialty food business Wellspent Market. Jim’s always loved to eat, and he encourages his customers to cook by sending them recipes every week through his newsletter. We’re happy to have him back creating some special dishes just for WW readers.

Often described as an iconic Southern food, pimento cheese actually evolved from the ideas of the pseudo-scientific home economics movement in the early 1900s. The proponents of domestic science, all from Yankee enclaves like Boston and New York, believed that modern foods, like the recently created cream cheese, could elevate society. Mild flavors, they held, moved people toward a more genteel society, while strong flavors like garlic encouraged overly emotional, “undesirable” behavior. That the people who liked their food well-seasoned and even spicy were mostly dark-skinned (or at least swarthy like the recently arrived southern European immigrants) hinted at the racist undertones of the early domestic scientists, but that’s another story.

The original pimento cheese combined that modern cream cheese with canned sweet red peppers called pimentos. While the Portuguese call peppers pimentos, American use of the word likely devolved from the Spanish word pimiento. Imported canned sweet peppers from Spain appealed to the early domestics scientists because of their mild flavor, and their bright color added to their charm. At some point the second i was dropped, and they became pimentos. For a deeper dive into the fascinating history of pimento cheese, read food historian Robert Moss’ article in Serious Eats.

And while Southerners may still claim it as their own, these days pimento cheese is everywhere, although it’s changed from the original version. Grated cheddar replaced the cream cheese, and while some recipes still call for the little jars of thinly sliced pimentos, most use roasted red bell peppers. But the biggest change was dropping the cream cheese and using mayonnaise to hold the spread together. Those three ingredients are all you really need, but aficionados might customize their pimento cheese with Crystal hot sauce, sweet pickle relish, cayenne pepper, or even a splash of bourbon.

Pimento Cheese

½ pound medium yellow cheddar cheese, grated

½ pound sharp white cheddar cheese, grated

3 roasted red peppers (about 1 cup)

½ cup mayonnaise

Chop the red peppers into roughly ⅛-inch pieces. Combine with the grated cheese and mayo. Serve with crackers or bread.

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