“Take a moment,” writes Sven Beckert, the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard, “and imagine, if you can, a world without pimento cheese.”
Well, no, actually, what Beckert writes, in his magisterial book Empire of Cotton, is “a world without cotton.” But until recently, most of the world—that portion of it lying outside the American South—was without pimento cheese. This we learned, to our consternation, if we ever remarked outside the South, “You know what would be good right now? A pimento cheese sandwich,” and the local person we were addressing responded, “A what?”
And that non-Southerner was typical. “Pimento cheese,” I would tell such a person, “is the last thing y’all haven’t caught up with up here.” I enjoyed that.
Now, however, pimento cheese has moved on. Quick chronology:
1955. Stanley Donen codirects It’s Always Fair Weather. Gene Kelly and friends dance in the street with garbage-can lids on their feet. Dan Dailey spices up a dull party by getting drunk and dancing with a lampshade on his head. Cyd Charisse so wows the fellas in Stillman’s gym with her moves that they break into a big production number, “Baby You Knock Me Out.” And pimento cheese appears.
A singer with a tendency to overeat under stress starts calling for lots of food. “Here,” says a man who doesn’t want her to get fat, “take this.”
“What is this?”
“A pimento cheese sandwich,” he says.
“I don’t want a pimento cheese sandwich,” she says, but she takes it. In the next scene she’s still eating it. Is pimento cheese supposed to be appetite killing? How did pimento cheese get into a movie that is set in New York City? Donen was from Columbia, South Carolina. Will pimento cheese become an established movie trope, like rooftop chases or the line “We gotta get outta here”? Will everybody know about it?
Not yet. That was before the Internet.
2000. In Dr. T. and the Women (screen-writer: Anne Rapp from Texas), Richard Gere asks for a pimento cheese sandwich. On Food.com, someone writes: “Mmmmm. I had never heard of Pimento Cheese until I was watching a movie and they mentioned pimento cheese sandwiches. I searched and found a recipe…The spread is addicting.”
2003. The Southern Foodways Alliance sponsors a Pimento Cheese Invitational, producing a 312-page book of recipes.
2008. Having embarrassed himself at another SFA gathering by revealing his ignorance of pimento cheese, Ari Weinzweig, cofounder of Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sells excellent pimento cheese by mail order, nine dollars for a six-ounce tub.
2010. Time Out New York: “…a century after its birth…pimento cheese is finally finding a foothold in New York.” One eatery is already taking a “revisionist approach, deconstructing the snack into deep-fried crispy cheddar curds.”
2011. Breaking Bad, about a mousy chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who becomes a drug lord, is a red-hot TV series. Mike, the lovable hired killer, and Jesse, the apprentice drug lord, are staking out a house so they can retrieve some hijacked blue meth. Jesse is bored. Mike offers a sandwich: “How does pimento cheese sound?” Jesse is so irritated he bolts from the car. What is pimento cheese doing in New Mexico? Vince Gilligan, creator of the series, is from Richmond.
2012. Gothamist.com: “Where to Get the Best Pimento Cheese Sandwich in NYC.”
2015. An episode of Better Call Saul, the series that is a prequel to Breaking Bad, is entitled “Pimento.” Our friend Mike gets a gig as one of three bodyguards for a guy doing a drug deal. Mike is old and bald and small. The other two are big badasses. One of them makes fun of Mike, wants to know what he’s packing. Mike indicates a small paper bag, which contains, he says, a pimento cheese sandwich. Badass guy is incredulous. “Pimento,” Mike says. “It’s a cheese.” Then of course he knocks the badass down and takes all three of his guns and throws them away. The other badass cuts and runs. Mike handles the gig by himself unarmed.
So pimento cheese has become what TV obsesssives call an Easter egg: a hard-to-notice touch harkening back to something earlier in the series. Only this Easter egg harkens to another series. And since this series is a prequel, this Easter egg harkens forward. An in-joke within an in-joke. Wise guys all over the world will be cracking, “Pimento. It’s a cheese.”
I thought I was an authority on pimento cheese. And I didn’t even know it was funny.