Try telling someone you wrote your master's thesis on pimento cheese. Then try telling them pimento cheese is parading around as the nation's new It Girl. My lifelong go-to sandwich filler isn't making a strong case for itself as an object for serious conversation. Instead, it's showing up in the most ridiculous places: everywhere except for its traditional spot between two slices of bread.
In a recent issue of Bon Appétit, pimento cheese—a mix of grated cheddar, mayonnaise and diced pimiento peppers—oozed from a crock of macaroni and cheese. On Today and in newspapers nationwide, it has guest-starred in potato gratin at the hands of Matt and Ted Lee, two stewards of Southern food. At Costco, it's been sold rolled into sushi. And at Denver's Beatrice & Woodsley, it's baked as a cheesecake. Such widespread iterations provoked Adam Rapoport of Bon Appétit to predict 2011 would be the "Year of Pimento Cheese." But the year is of no real matter to those of us in the Triangle.
According to Ed Simerly of Moody Dunbar, the nation's largest producer of pimento peppers, we've long ranked with Charlotte as the capital of pimento cheese. And here, other than a few slips (pimento cheese scones at the Umstead and panko-crusted deep fried pimento cheese at The Pit) we don't serve it as mere novelty. We can't. Pimento cheese is everyday stuff, though this wasn't always the case.
When it first appeared in the early 20th century, dainty pimento cheese sandwiches were served crustless at tea parties across the nation. They were regarded as a delicacy due to the high cost of cheese and pimiento peppers, then imported from Spain. It didn't take long, however, for the spread to reach the masses. James Lewis Kraft sold the first processed cheese in 1915. Soon after, farmers began growing pimiento peppers in the South, helping to lower the cost of the spread and to seal its fate as Southern fare.
Yet pimento cheese never lost its status as a product for the elite. In the South, it remains an item on tearoom menus and as finger food suitable for formal weddings. But it was pimento cheese's role among the working class that caused it to proliferate throughout the Piedmont of North and South Carolina.
My family hails from Albemarle, a textile town in the Carolina Piedmont where my mom recalls pimento cheese as a neighborhood and family staple. "I can't remember opening my grandmother's refrigerator without seeing pimento cheese there," she once told me. But according to her, the spread was never eaten as a sandwich at home. Instead, she explained, "We always sat down at a table and you ate a hot meal, three meals a day. And so it was never there for a meal at home. It was there for work."
Many people in the Piedmont, including my mother, briefly, worked in a textile mill. There, formalized meal breaks were largely disregarded by the 1920s, and workers were encouraged to eat on the job as they found time. To facilitate this process, sandwiches and crackers were sold at worker's stations by way of dope carts—wagons named for the caffeinated "dopes," or sodas they stocked. Of the sandwiches, which included other salad spreads like ham, chicken and egg, pimento cheese became the most iconic. Tasty, affordable and convenient, it nonetheless retained its status as a delicacy in certain circles.
Small companies secured contracts with local industries and took root throughout the Piedmont, supplying food to carts and, later, vending machines and commissaries. In Burlington there was Star Foods, and in Durham, Made Rite Sandwiches.
Women were often at the helm of such operations. Karlie Keith Fisher founded the Fisher brand in Raleigh in 1928. In the 1940s, Jessie Thomas Buie opened the Biscoe Sandwich Shop in Biscoe. The following decade, Ruth Ross started Ruth's Salads in Charlotte. These women used food as a means to escape the drudgery of home or other unwanted employment, such as a textile mill. And pimento cheese—food that was considered part of a women's domestic domain—was a window not only into work but also business ownership, financial independence and creativity in ways that were nonthreatening to gender roles of the time.
Today, many of the mills that first spurred widespread production and consumption of pimento cheese have closed or moved overseas. Still, pimento cheese continues to thrive. For many, it remains a food for work. The spread is carried to sites in paper sacks and is at the heart of many jobs in the food industry. For others, the spread represents something of a habit. My mother summed this up once when I asked why she religiously stocked pimento cheese at our house during my youth. "Shopping felt incomplete if I didn't have pimento cheese in the refrigerator," she told me. "It was a throwback to my childhood because when Grandma would send me to the grocery—the neighborhood grocery—there would always be cheese on her list if we were out. You know, and so I've always bought pimento cheese."
I know exactly what she means. I always keep pimento cheese around. When I lived in Chicago for a stint a few years ago (before pimento cheese's national renaissance), I had a hard time finding the spread, though not its simple ingredients. I often made a batch using my grandmother's pimento cheese recipe. It was the taste of home, meaning it was always on white bread. Because really, who longs for pimento cheese sushi?