The history of the ubiquitous pimento cheese spread | Summer Guide | Indy Week

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The history of the ubiquitous pimento cheese spread



To really know pimento cheese—a mix of grated cheddar, diced pimiento peppers and mayonnaise that we take for granted in the South—I set off on a bit of a journey (one prodded by equal parts curiosity, a lifelong devotion to the spread and a need to complete my master's thesis in folklore). Along my quest, I ate an unfathomable number of pimento cheese sandwiches. I donned a hairnet and visited several factories where the product is manufactured. I clocked a good thousand miles or more on a sandwich tour of the South. And eventually, I found the capital of pimento cheese—right here at home. The Triangle, along with Charlotte, ranks as the biggest market in the nation for both homemade and industrial varieties of the spread, according to Ed Simerly, vice president of Moody Dunbar, the nation's largest producer of pimiento peppers.

I sought out Simerly at his company's headquarters in Johnson City, Tenn., upon realizing that I was clueless as to the nature of pimento cheese's infamous red flecks. The pimiento, he explained, is a small, heart-shaped red pepper that commonly loses an "i" in cheese form to become plain old pimento. An import from Spain until 1908, the pimiento was considered a delicacy due to the pepper's high cost. Subsequently, so was pimento cheese, a nationally available product that first appeared in print in 1910. Early Kraft advertisements claimed the cheese to be "studded, like rubies" (a line I now keep in my back pocket to use for folks who scowl at pimento cheese).

The exact convergence of pimentos and cheese remains unclear, but the spread's road to Southern ubiquity and iconic status started in a field in Experiment, Ga. There, beginning in 1916, the pepper took root to become a successful crop, and two years later, an even greater commodity when Mark Riegel opened a canning factory nearby. Similar operations, including Moody Dunbar, opened throughout the Southeast, and Georgia acquired acclaim as the "Pimiento Capital of the World." It was the abundance of pimiento peppers in the South that sealed the deal for pimento cheese as Southern fare, and it reigns today as one of our most iconic foods. It was also the plentiful pepper that made pimento cheese widely available and affordable in the South, though pimento cheese never lost its high-end status.

In the Triangle, you can find pimento cheese on a range of menus. Take, for instance, Raleigh's Side Street Café, where, at a table draped in white linens, pimento cheese comes served on a sandwich called Hope's Best topped with onions, tomatoes, sprouts, bell peppers and bacon. It appears as an appetizer, and better yet, as a burger topping, at the esteemed Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill. It's a standard sandwich offering at Person Street Pharmacy in Raleigh, where it costs a mere $3.80. And its presence in a deli case at Durham's Parker and Otis (where it also has a T-shirt) has landed it a photo shoot and story in Bon Appétit.

But the place from which pimento cheese takes home the gold for us is its spot on a supermarket shelf. There, surrounded by a spectrum of pale pinks that emanate from packaged ham slices and shrink-wrapped hot dogs, the brilliant orange sheen from tubs of pimento cheese is well pronounced. It's an undeniably striking image, one that is especially accentuated under the glow of fluorescent lighting.

There are tubs of Star's, Ruth's Salads and Stan's among others, three brands that manufacture and distribute pimento cheese on an incredible level. Ruth's, based in Charlotte, is the top producer of pimento cheese in the nation, manufacturing more than 50,000 cups of cheese per week, which are distributed throughout the South. As the second-highest distributor, Stan's of Burlington ships more than 20,000 pounds of pimento cheese per week, and Star's, also from Burlington, weighs in with an impressive 6,000 to 8,000 pounds. Companies like these were the result of an increasingly industrialized workforce in the Piedmont that needed a cheap, tasty and convenient product. Star Foods got its start in 1952, for instance, by securing contracts with the commissaries at the then-abundant textile mills in Burlington. Ruth's Salads, which opened in the mid-1950s, also began as a popular food to carry to work.

Though many of the area industries that once provided a huge market for these food companies are gone, small tubs of pimento cheese are obviously still thriving. It's a testament to the fact that pimento cheese is more than mere sustenance these days. I came to understand this when I first wrote to Star Foods about visiting. In my (embarrassingly gushing) letter, I found myself including details about growing up with pimento cheese and missing it during the years that I lived outside of the South in order to attend school. Jason Griffith, vice president at Star's, wasn't surprised. "We get it all the time," he explained before showing me an e-mail from a displaced Southerner in Manhattan that was eerily similar to my own letter, making it clear how pimento cheese functions as an icon of familiarity and a symbol of home. But thankfully, here in the Triangle, a place where pimento cheese spans the spectrum from the thing of the everyday to something that is gussied up, it's not just a symbol of home; it's the very thing.

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