Let's cut to the chase - pimento cheese is shredded cheese, bits of pimento and a generous dollop of mayonnaise all mixed up and used as a sandwich spread or dip. Plain and simple, right? Perhaps it should have been called Pimento Mayonnaise Cheese for clarity's sake.
Of course, some folks routinely use a bit of Dijon mustard, lemon juice or Worcestershire for extra tang. And some like the pungent taste of grated onion or minced garlic, or the texture and pucker of chopped pickles. Others swear by a shot or two of hot sauce, a pinch of cayenne or, more daringly, diced jalapenos.
There are the "dumpers" - those who upend the jar of pimentos, juice and all, into the bowl - and the "ploppers," who insist on dropping in an extra scoop of mayo to make it especially creamy.
And let's not overlook the particulars that make pimento cheese (a Northern invention, much to the horror of some) a true Southern delicacy: ONLY sharp cheddar cheese, ONLY real pimentos (a thicker-skinned version of the red bell pepper), ONLY Duke's mayonnaise (born in South Carolina more than a century ago and still being made here) and, for sandwich-making, ONLY white bread. ONLY.
The origins of pimento cheese are somewhat murky, though historians agree the earliest recipes hail from above the Mason-Dixon Line. These late 1800s versions describe a sticky concoction made with cream cheese and pimentos. Southerners decided they could do it a might better, replacing cream cheese with snappy cheddar and incorporating South Carolina-made mayonnaise. It's also worth pointing out that, in the 1900s, pimentos were being grown with great success in Georgia. Something had to be done with all those peppers, so the widespread adoption of pimento cheese as a "Southern thing" may well have been driven in part by our natural industriousness - and love of tasty, creamy, cheesy dishes, of course.
In a nod to its regional stature, pimento cheese (sometimes pronounced "puh-men´-tuh chāz) is respectfully referred to as "Southern Paté" or the "Caviar of the South." The late North Carolina author Reynolds Price fondly dubbed it "the peanut butter of my childhood."
One thing pimento cheese is not is pretentious. It is as likely to be spread neatly on a cracker and topped with an olive or used as a filling in a dainty tea sandwich as to be spackled between two slices of bread and carted to work in a brown paper bag. You can buy it by the tub in the grocery store (for the best, stick to local brands, such as the award-winning Palmetto Cheese made in Pawleys Island) and order it as an appetizer at some of South Carolina's finest restaurants. It holds the distinction of being the official sandwich at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., as well as a concession favorite during the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
In recent years, it has enjoyed a notable uptick in appeal where Southern gourmands are concerned. This passion is at a fever pitch, as evidenced by its wanton use in the most unlikely dishes. Consider that this gooey deliciousness has been doubling as a condiment on food like burgers and baked potatoes, and adding decadent richness to grits, pies, omelets and casseroles - all kinds of recipes that traditionally call for cheese.
And some that don't. But who cares about protocol when faced with a plate of crispy fried green tomatoes crowned with that tell-tale orange goodness?
So, to recap the answer to "What is pimento cheese?" ...
It's a mix of sharp cheddar cheese, your favorite additions (cayenne, onion, hot sauce, hot peppers, mustard or anything you find especially tasty), real pimentos (sometimes with the juice), bound together by Duke's mayonnaise (a little if you like it dry, a lot if you like it creamy), to be eaten on white bread, crackers or burgers, to top baked potatoes or fried green tomatoes, to fill pies or deviled eggs, or to be folded into grits, eggs, casseroles or just about any cheese dish where you want extra Southern oomph. Final answer.
Now, go forth and buy your favorite brand at the supermarket or order it in one of South Carolina's finest restaurants. Even better, make your own pimento cheese. Here's a simple recipe to get you started. Mix it up then tweak to your palate's delight.
Basic Southern Pimento Cheese
16 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 4-ounce jar of diced pimento (add juice if you like)
1 to 1 ½ cups of Duke's mayonnaise, depending on desired thickness
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Fold in whatever seasonings or additions you like. Chill for an hour or more to let the flavors blend. Dig in.