Anatomy of a Classic

Pimento Cheese: Spread the Love

About 1 pint (serves 4 as an appetizer)

Why you shouldn’t get too tricky with pimento cheese

Photo: Johnny Autry

From potlucks to lunch pails, pimento cheese is the stuff of everyday Southern life. Doesn’t matter whether their first taste came from the local grocer or Grandma’s kitchen, most Southerners are attached to their ’menta cheese memories, and Sarah O’Kelley, co-owner and co-chef of the Glass Onion in Charleston, South Carolina, is no exception. “When I was growing up, my father fed me pimento cheese on white bread,” she says. “Even as a child, I can remember being fascinated by the spiciness of it.”

A Georgia native, O’Kelley developed her culinary skills in New Orleans, where she worked for Emeril Lagasse’s empire, writing and testing recipes for cookbooks and TV shows. But she also drew from her Georgia roots during menu planning for the Glass Onion, and pimento cheese was a must. “I already had the recipe worked out and was determined to have it my way,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m creating the tradition here.’”

Some modern adapters incorporate fancy cheeses or add extras like garlic and chopped dill pickles. Not O’Kelley. “It has an identity,” she says. “It’s blasphemous to try and make pimento cheese different by adding crazy ingredients.” Her pimento has got to be made with orange cheddar, shot through with the deep red of pimiento peppers, once grown and canned primarily in Georgia and used to deliver a dagger of acidity for balance. “I also use chopped green onions (rather than grated yellow) because they are mild and add some nice flecks of color.” As for the mayonnaise? Here’s where O’Kelley borders on the fanatical. “You must use Duke’s brand,” the chef says. Developed by Eugenia Duke in Greenville, South Carolina, Duke’s hasn’t changed its formula since 1917. “Duke’s has no added sugar and more egg yolks that give it a richness similar to homemade.”

But while O’Kelley keeps her recipe traditional, she has been known to put the iconic cheddar spread to some creative uses. A grilled pimento cheese sandwich on slabs of brioche is a staple on the Glass Onion’s menu, and she also likes to fold a dollop into a farm-fresh egg omelet. Just make sure the pimento cheese is cold before putting any fire to it, she advises. “If it gets too hot, you’ll wind up with a mayonnaise mess.”



    • 2 cups sharp orange cheddar, grated (8 oz.)

    • ½ cup Duke’s mayonnaise

    • ½ cup pimiento peppers, drained and chopped (7-oz. jar)

    • ¼ cup green onion, chopped (use both the green and the white parts)

    • 1 tsp. black pepper

    • ½ tsp. salt

    • ¼ tsp. cayenne

    • Dash of Tabasco


  1. Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl, and stir with a rubber spatula. Serve immediately with crackers, or cover, refrigerate, and let flavors marinate.

Recipe from Sarah O’Kelley of the Glass Onion in Charleston, South Carolina.