Sunday, March 18, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: North Carolina III - It's the (Pimento) Cheesiest

Pimento cheese is one of those specifically Southern foods you see throughout the "proper South".  While Maryland has its ties to Southern cuisine - in terms of seafood, fried chicken, hams, familiarity with Moon Pies as opposed to whoopies, which are only newly popular here, etc - we are clearly above the culinary Mason-Dixon Line in terms of pimento cheese.  But like the sweet Yankee whoopie pie, the decidedly Southern pimento cheese has started to make itself very much known in Maryland and throughout the nation, busting waistlines all over.

Official Name: State of North Carolina
State Nicknames: The Tar Heel State, The Old North State
Admission to the US: November 21, 1789 (#12)
Capital: Raleigh (2nd largest)
Other Important Cities: Charlotte (largest), Greensboro (3rd largest), Winston-Salem (4th largest)
 South, Southeast, Upper South; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT NationsCrabcakeChestnut
Bordered by: Virginia (north); Tennessee (west); Georgia (southwest); South Carolina (south); Atlantic Ocean (east)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: blueberry & strawberry (berries), milk (beverage), channel bass (fish), Southern Appalachian brook trout (freshwater trout), Scuppernong grape (fruit), honey bee (insect - again, for the honey), gray squirrel (mammal), sweet potato (vegetable)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: two - count 'em: two famous styles of BBQ (Eastern and Western or "Lexington-style"); other standard Southern foods, including (typically eaten with said BBQ's) cole slaw, hush puppies, sweet tea; pimiento cheese (the nation's leading producer); also the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola

Emily Wallace, a native of the Piedmont North Carolina, writes for the Durham-based Independent Weekly about the history of what I might easily assume is a food she enjoyed as a child.  Pimento cheese, as she puts it, is "parading around as the nation's new It Girl" [Wallace 2011].  She points out that the hearty mix of cheddar cheese, pimentos and mayo (among other things) is a food that is both proletarian and bourgeois, appearing in lunch pails and tea rooms since the early 20th century:
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. [Wallace 2011]
And wouldn't you know it, Charlotte, according to Wallace, is the nation's pimento cheese capital, and North Carolina the nation's leading producer of the stuff.  Also the home of one of my favorite supermarket chains (yes, those words actually came out of my brain) Harris Teeter, you will find a good selection of pimento cheeses there - notably Augusta's Creations, also out of Charlotte (they make regular and jalapeño pimento cheeses).

Pimento cheese is one of those foods for which every family has its own recipe, like crab cakes or chili.  The recipe I used - originally from Nan Davis - comes from the Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook, edited by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge.  It speaks to the popularity of pimento cheese that the very first recipe in the collection is a pimento cheese recipe.  Forgive me, Charlotte, but this recipe comes to us from Edge's home state of Mississippi - not exactly North Carolina, but a good recipe nonetheless.

The Recipe: Pimento Cheese

For Nan Davis' Blue Ribbon Pimento Cheese (recipe on page 5 of the SFA Community Cookbook) you will need the following:

* cheddar cheese (different recipes I saw also added some Monterey Jack, but every recipe I saw had at the least cheddar cheese, as bright yellow as you can get.  A 16 oz block set me back about $3 on sale at, yes, Harris Teeter)
* pimentos (you absolutely need these - a 4 oz jar is $3)
* mayonnaise (while the recipe calls for a homemade mayo, the recipe for which follows, I stuck with Richmond-based Duke's Mayonnaise)
* Worcestershire sauce (not every recipe will call for this, or any of the other ingredients that follow)
* sugar (just a tad)
* onion powder (I bought a small bottle for about $1.50)
* cayenne pepper (had it)

First, grate your cheddar cheese.  You could also cheat and buy it pre-shredded. Maybe that would've saved me some time, but this recipe isn't a difficult one to begin with.

I thought about adding a little leftover pecorino romano, though I only added a little.

Throw the shredded cheese in your food processor with all your other ingredients.  I had to do this in two batches.

Pulse until it is like a rough paste.  Add more mayonnaise if it's not soft enough.

This is a delicious, luscious and filling - very damn filling - pimento cheese.  I have enough to last me for a while, and that's after sharing half of it with friends.  I just have to face facts: this is going to gain me a pound or two.,  Grilled pimento cheese sandwiches for the next few weeks anyone?  Note though: I made this during Lent.  A grilled pimento cheese sandwich would be the perfect meatless meal, although I would enjoy it too much.


Barbecue Joint.  "Eastern North Carolina Barbecue".  Featured on the episode "Durham, NC" of the show $40 a Day (Rachael Ray, host).  Food Network, 2005.

Bowen, Dana.  "East Vs. West: North Carolina Pulled Pork"., Issue #139: BBQ Nation.  Published June 16, 2011.  Copyright 2011  All rights reserved.

Goldwyn, Craig "Meathead". "East Carolina Kiss & Vinegar Barbecue Sauce & Mop". Amazing Ribs website. Last revised September 12, 2011.  All

Graff, Michael, Wendy Perry, and Teresa Williford.  "The Pepsi ‘N’ Peanuts Cake".  Our State: Down Home in North Carolina. Posted February 2012.  Copyright 2012 Our State.  All rights reserved.

North Carolina BBQ Society.  "Eastern Style Slaw".  Copyright The North Carolina Barbecue Society, Inc. 2009.

North Carolina BBQ Society.  "Piedmont Lexington-Style Dip".  Copyright The North Carolina Barbecue Society, Inc. 2009.

North Carolina Travels (  "North Carolina Barbecue".  Date unknown.  Matt Barrett's Travel Guides: North Carolina.  All rights reserved.

O'Dea, Stephanie.  "You Can Use Your CrockPot as a Smoker".  A Year of Slow Cooking.  Posted August 7, 2008.

Pepsi Store (  "History of the Birthplace".  Date unknown.  Copyright and Pepsi-Cola.  All rights reserved.  "Lexington Pulled Pork"., Issue #139: BBQ Nation.  Published June/July 2011.  Copyright 2011  All rights reserved.  "Lexington-Style Red Slaw"., Issue #139: BBQ Nation.  Published June/July 2011.  Copyright 2011  All rights reserved.

Southern Foodways Alliance (Sara Roahen and John T. Edge, editors).  The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.  University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA, 2010.

Wallace, Emily.  "A brief history of pimento cheese".  Independent Weekly (  Posted June 22, 2011.  Copyright 2012 Independent Weekly.  All rights reserved.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "North Carolina" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "North Carolina".