Rich sandwich/poor sandwich: The surprisingly storied history of pimento cheese

Rich sandwich/poor sandwich: The surprisingly storied history of pimento cheese

Emily Elizabeth Wallace didn’t write the book on pimento cheese; but she did write the thesis. A thesis submitted to (and approved by) the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Department of American Studies. The title of this compelling manifest is It Was There for Work: Pimento Cheese in the Carolina Piedmont. In it, Ms. Wallace notes that at its simplest, pimento cheese is merely cheddar, pimiento peppers, and mayonnaise; but it can also help reveal a particular history, place, and context within the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina. This history is one of experience, memory, and regional identity.

The thesis title, the curious part found before the colon, are the words of Ms. Wallace’s mother, Myra Rothwell Wallace as she recalled pimento cheese as ever present in the icebox of her youth, although, she never remembers eating it herself. According to the senior Ms. Wallace, all of her family meals were hot meals, never sandwiches, and the spread was used only to slather between two pieces of bread for the lunchboxes the men of the house, fathers and brothers with jobs at the nearby textile mills, took to work

Wallace goes on to trace pimento cheese from these humble working-class beginnings to when food manufacturers started mass producing it and marketing it to the South’s more refined palates. She notes this ad copy from Kraft:

It was a cook in sunny Spain who first enriched and softened the flavor by boiling the pimento in oil. It was a Spanish epicure who first used it in cheese. But it remained for the patented Kraft process of blending and sterilizing to bring this toothsome combination to its full, delicious perfection and make it a marketable delicacy. When you open—with the key—a tin of the Pimento style of Elkhorn Cheese and remove the delicate parchment protection, there before you is a symmetrical round of wholesome goodness, studded, like rubies, with scarlet bits of imported Spanish pimentos—nothing could be more tempting, except the flavor.

It was there for work.

Studded like rubies.

So, which is it, working class staple or caviar of the South? Surprisingly, pimento cheese became and has managed to continue to be, both. The spread remains an affordable choice for nearly any budget. You can also find it on the menus of some of the best, most costly restaurants in the U.S. Nowhere is this dual role more evident than that the Masters, held each year at Augusta National in Georgia. Tickets can cost thousands of dollars, yet the pimento cheese on white bread sandwiches they sell wrapped in green wax paper, costs only $1.50.

Whether you are the Masters type, the pack-your-lunch type, or the type that does both, here’s my own version of the Southern classic, with an added spicy Far East kick from Sriracha. If you make it, when you take a bite, say a little word of thanks to our good neighbors to the south, for their gentle ways, their colorful history, and of course, for the pimento cheese.

Pimento Cheese with Sriracha

  • 16 ounces grated, sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup mayonnaise (I suggest Duke’s)
  • 2 tablespoons jarred diced pimentos, drained
  • 2 tablespoons Sriracha
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

In a bowl, mix together all ingredients. Chill for about two hour before serving. Can be refrigerated for up to four days.

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