My New York City husband asked me, “What the hell is pimento cheese?”
I said, “I served it in pinwheels at our Christmas parties for ten years.”
My husband asked, “What are pinwheels?”
“Lawd,” I texted my friend in Florida about this exchange.
“Oh Lawd is right,” my friend texted back.
In the South, you can get pimento cheese as easy as religion. It’s an omnipresent staple. Picture a Swingline with GOD printed on the label. There at the ready. You don’t use it every day, but you know it works.
Pimento cheese is a spread made up of cheddar, pimentos, mayonnaise, and salt and pepper. Sound simple? It is and it ain’t. Do you use sharp and extra sharp? Do you grate it by hand or buy it shredded in a bag? Do you use homemade mayonnaise, Hellman’s, or Duke’s? And just what the heck is a pimento? Nobody knows. They’re only found in that four-ounce jar—slippery crimson somethings packed like Red Hot–size sardines. They bleed into the mix and give it a Circus Peanut color. I’ve never seen a recipe that makes less than three cups.
You can buy pimento cheese in small batches at the grocery store. It’s totally okay. It’s homemade if you made it come to the table. Two Southern friends attest that Red Clay Gourmet and MyThreeSons are the best. Another says if you’re on a budget, “Publix is just as good.”
Once you got it, what do you do with it? Slather it on like a mud mask? Why not?
A Georgia friend says, “I love it on crackers and grilled pimento cheese sandwiches.”
My friend in Florida says, “I love it as a dip and serve it as a Southern twist on a charcuterie board.”
I’ve eaten it on deviled eggs, celery sticks, and celery-wide white bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Every time I’m in Vegas, I get myself to Yardbird at the Venetian where they pile it on open-faced fried green tomato and smoked pork belly BLTs. At Dollywood’s Granny Ogle’s Ham ‘n’ Beans, they serve it surrounded by pork rinds. At the 2019 Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson, I pushed golf ball rounds on Ritz crackers into my mouth like sushi. In Manhattan, an Alabama friend served it at a political fundraiser, and I wrote a check before I met the candidate.
Pimento cheese brings out the best in a guest.
Or the party animal.
Looking back at our Christmases, I realize why my husband never ate my pimento pinwheels (rolled in Mission brand jalapeño and cheddar wraps): because by the time he left the front door where he was greeting guests, our partygoers had eaten them all.
The same thing happens at garden clubs, book clubs, graduations, or funeral receptions. You know, wherever you find a casserole or a casket. A gathering and a generational recipe. Pale orange speckled packages laid out on a tablecloth next to an inherited thirty-cup avocado green electric coffee percolator. A comfort. A joy. A sense memory in your mouth, rooted in truth. And then gone.
Think about it, when have you ever had leftover pimento cheese?