The classic Southern spread is turning up on menus (and in better grocers) all over the country, but some of the best can be ordered online.
In New York City's Meatpacking District, just over the road from the Hudson River and inside the Whitney, one of the country's top art museums, it is lunchtime. The tables in Untitled, the museum restaurant, fill up rapidly, with a mix of art lovers from around the world, locals conducting business, or merely escaping reality for an hour or two, disappearing into this stories-high, glass-sheathed space that lets in all the light.
Just what is everyone eating? Allow yourself a wander through the busy dining room, cast a few sneaky glances about, and chances are, you will see groups of happy eaters diving into one of the restaurant's more talked-about starters. Which would be the pimento cheese, scooped up with triangles of crispy flatbread, or, perhaps, if nobody is looking, shoveled by the spoonful.
No lunchroom grade, shred chedd, mayo and canned pepper special, this—some of the finest cheddar produced in Vermont sets the (orange-y) tone, and there are more twists to come. The spread is lighter, fluffier, thanks to the addition of ricotta, while smoked jalapeño peppers give off a welcome bit of extra heat. This, if it even needs to be said, turns out to be delicious stuff.
One hundred years ago, when that encouraged home cooks to gently beat cream cheese, mustard, chives and minced pimento peppers together, it was the South that responded the most eagerly, in part due to the fact that it was the South where farmers began growing the red peppers necessary to the recipe — peppers which, up until then, would have been imported.
These growers were soon producing up to 10 million cans of pimento each year, many of which Southern cooks kept for themselves. Pimento cheese becoming synonymous with the Southern table was, it turns out, something like an accident of proximity to the necessary produce. In fact, at the very mention of the stuff, food historians are always quick to point out that the first occurrence of cheese and the then-imported peppers being combined happened up north, back in the 1800's. Some say, gasp, it happened in New York.
In today's same-day shipping, saw-it-on-Instagram world, location is no longer a barrier to inspiration, not to mention creation; pimento cheese is being made and can be found for sale pretty much everywhere in the United States. From supermarket shelves on the Eastern Seaboard, to finer restaurant tables on the West Coast (for example, mkgallery Best New Restaurant 2018 Junebaby, in Seattle), to countless bars and restaurants throughout the land serving it up as a burger topper, if you've got a craving for the stuff and don't have time to whip up a batch yourself (it's easy, really!), someone else is ready to jump in and save you.
Not that you even have to leave your home—with a few clicks of a button, you can have some of the very best pimento cheese in the United States shipped straight to your door. Ready to make the Southern favorite a staple at your table? Here are five great makers we recommend.
One of the best-loved small luxury resorts in the South, this exclusive Smoky Mountain retreat not-so-secretly doubles as a top producer of food and drink. Their in-house brewery is one of the best in the state, they cure a mean slab of bacon, and—of course—they make their own cheese. The house pimento cheese, made with Spanish roasted red pimento peppers and sharp, aged Cheddar is a clear winner.
Sweet Grass Dairy
One of the South's finest cheesemakers in one of the South's most delightful small towns is also the source of some of the South's best—you guessed it—pimento cheese. This version begins with piles of nutty Thomasville Tomme, an aged, Pyrenees-style farmhouse cheese, imported piquillo peppers and smoked paprika, all brought together with spoonfuls of Duke's mayonnaise, known to loyal fans as the best mayonnaise on earth. (We kind of see their point.)
Red Clay Gourmet
Customers at Lance and Michele Sawyer's craft beer bar in Winston-Salem couldn't get over the house pimento spread, made with finely shredded and pleasantly sharp white cheddar. With so much creaminess coming from the very good cheese, this one could easily afford to go light on the mayonnaise, and it does—the first time we tasted the stuff, at a Whole Foods Market way up north, we knew Red Clay was special. There are a few varieties to sample—start with the classic, and see where you go from there.
Fromagerie Belle Chevre
Proving that even the South likes to mess around with tradition every now and then, one of the most unique (and most awarded) pimento cheese spreads you can buy right now comes from a small town in Alabama—peppers, spices, a mountain of fluffy goat's cheese. Classic? No. Delicious, you bet. Healthier, too.
Known to Charleston visitors a great place to grab a couple of filled mini-biscuits for breakfast, Callie's produces a very good, traditional pimento cheese, made with two ingredients found in plenty of classic preparations—Worcestershire Sauce and a dash of Tabasco.