To a Masters Tournament visitor, pimento cheese is nothing more than a sandwich purchased at the concession stand at the Augusta National Golf Club. The green wax paper makes as much of an impression as the sandwich does. But when true Southerners are asked about pimento cheese, a smile creeps across their face as their minds and palates fill with memories of childhood. Memories of running into the house barefoot, slamming the back screen door, opening the refrigerator and filling their mouth with a scoop of the homemade spread.
It is an exceptionally emotional food for Southerners.
"I would just eat it by the spoonful," said Fran Upton, an Augusta resident who grew up in Lincolnton. "It was always in the refrigerator in the summertime."
Where pimento cheese came from, and when it became a staple of Southern cuisine is unknown. "I think that it became so common because it was inexpensive to make and it kept well," said lifelong Augustan Martha Scroggs.
Mrs. Upton contends the sandwich spread made its way onto so many Southern summertime tables because of the ingredients. "Everything needed to make it are just staples in your pantry; mayonnaise, canned pimentos and Cheddar cheese."
Where and when pimento cheese sandwiches are eaten is more specific. "It's the epitome of a Southern summer picnic," Mrs. Scroggs said. "Pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread from Smoak's Bakery, fried chicken and deviled eggs. That's a picnic!
"In the 40s, at church picnics we would pack our lunches into shoe boxes. We didn't have any fancy picnic baskets or coolers, like we do now. The pimento cheese sandwiches held up great! They never became soggy."
Indeed, most memories of Southern picnics are filled with the tangy cheese spread, often served outdoors during a church gathering. "Growing up, our church had quarterly covered-dish dinners. They were picnics, really. We had fried chicken, ham biscuits, deviled eggs and of course, pimento cheese sandwiches," Mrs. Upton said.
Recipes for pimento cheese (although unwritten and without measurements) have been handed down from mother to child or sometimes, cook to child. Either way, the preparation of the spread was usually as savory as the sandwich itself.
Mrs. Scroggs remembers watching in the kitchen as their family cook prepared the spread. "She would grate sharp Cheddar cheese (we called it rat cheese) and just a little bit of onion. Then she would cut up these big pimentos, and gently stir all the ingredients together with good mayonnaise," Mrs. Scroggs said.
Mrs. Upton has similar memories, "One of the foods my mother made well was pimento cheese. She used hoop cheese (a wheel of sharp Cheddar cheese stored in wooden boxes in most country stores years ago). She would grate the cheese on the big side of the grater, drain the pimentos and mix them together by hand. Then she would fold in Hellmann's mayonnaise, a lot of black pepper and a pinch of red pepper. I loved it!"
When her daughter, Coleman, attended the University of Charleston, Mrs. Scroggs kept her well fed with this summertime soul food. "She'd come home for a weekend and I would always load her up with pimento cheese sandwiches to take back to school," she said. "She loves them, too!"
As simple as the ingredients of the pimento cheese sandwiches are, appreciating them is not. To "get" the pimento cheese sandwich mystique is to intimately understand the region's culture, to share in the collective memories of Southerners. This is what makes the simple pimento cheese sandwich extraordinary.
Although purists would use only sharp Cheddar cheese, Hellmann's or Duke's mayonnaise, pimentos and possibly finely chopped onion, the ladies of the Junior League of Augusta have a wonderful, spicy version.
1 1/2 pounds grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup horseradish sauce
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon mustard
1 7-ounce jar chopped pimentos, drained
Combine all ingredients, except the pimentos, in a bowl. Once spreadable, add in the pimentos and combine. Store covered in the refrigerator. Yields four cups.
Reprinted with permission from Second Round: Tea-Time at the Masters, Junior League of Augusta
Jenny Brule is a caterer with a degree in the culinary arts who has written about food for magazines including Cooking Light. Reach her at email@example.com.