The Southern spread with staying power

A staple of the Southern cook’s repertoire of nibbles, lagniappes and cocktail-hour spreadables since the early 20th century, pimento cheese involves little more than blending grated cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and jarred chopped pimentos. Renegades might add a few dashes of Tabasco sauce, grated onion or — gasp! — chopped pickle, but the Culinary Police generally bristle at those who stray from the tradition.

Well, the purists must really be up in arms over the current state of affairs, in which the stuff is being reinvented, interpreted, embellished and elevated.

Along with Nation’s Restaurant News, Bon Appetit editor Adam Rappaport included pimento cheese in their lists of 2011 food trends. That was not surprising, considering the explosion in recent years of Southern-is-hip cuisine — itself a manifestation of the truism that when times get tough, comfort food wins out over twee minimalism and foamy presentations.

Food folk like to co-opt a humble, unsophisticated and usually inexpensive ingredient and bump it from economy to first class. Thus, the Philly cheesesteak finds its way onto the menus of chefs such as Michel Richard and Jose Andres, while Bobby Flay offers a $19 pimento cheeseburger at Bar Americain in New York.

That’s a long way from being shmeared down the center of celery stalks or between two slices of Wonder bread.

Southerners, of course, don’t consider pimento cheese lowbrow. Recipe notes in their Junior League cookbooks use terms such as “darling of the South,” “Southern charmer” and “Carolina caviar.” Southern cooking expert Nathalie Dupree takes credit for coining the phrase “pate of the South,” though she admits she can’t prove she did it.

Southern cooks hold serious opinions about what cheddar is sharp enough and whether it should be hand-grated or passed through a meat grinder. (Pre-grated stuff: a definite no-no.) The mayonnaise choice is crucial. New Orleanians demand Blue Plate brand, but by and large the brand that Southerners insist on is Duke’s.

The peppers get a bit of a pass. Pimentos, a variety sweeter than bell peppers, are preferred but roasted red bell peppers are acceptable, especially if they’re on sale.

Some quibble over whether you need to blend the ingredients by hand and whether adding cream cheese to the mix is acceptable.

Dupree doesn’t make such fine distinctions.

“The mixing part depends on whether the food processor is already dirty,” she says airily. “Cream cheese? Why not?”

However they make it, Southerners always have treated the concoction with respect; it’s not unusual for it to be offered, proudly unadulterated, at fashionable restaurants and included in cookbooks by the likes of chefs Frank Stitt and Virginia Willis. The title of Willis’s book, “Bon Appetit, Y’ All,” nicely captures the sense of democracy that Southerners confer upon food; fried chicken and souffle deserve equal rights at a genteel Southern dinner party, provided both are served on Limoges china.

Examples of the pimento cheese paradigm abound in Washington and beyond, especially New York. David Guas serves pimento cheese with Triscuits and a grilled pimento cheese at Bayou Bakery in Arlington. At Founding Farmers, it shows up as part of an appetizer assortment and makes a cameo as a filling for an omelet/“hangover cure” stacked with beef chili, onions and grated cheese.

Restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum put Elvis burgers topped with pimento cheese on her menu at Jackie’s in Silver Spring when it opened in 2004; they remain today.

Some chefs’ tweaks: At Lillie’s Q in Chicago’s Wicker Park, Triscuits make way for olive oil-brushed crostini next to chef Charlie McKenna’s jalapeno pimento cheese. At the Commodore in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a haven for neo-Southern dining, Georgia-born chef Stephen Tanner makes a grilled “adult cheese” sandwich. Substituting roasted poblano pepper for pimento spices up the blend, making it more “grown-up,” says manager Milton Carter.

PYT burger joint in Philadelphia takes pimento as burger topping to a new level. Every so often, its burger of the week, served on a pretzel roll, is crowned with breaded, fried pimento macaroni and cheese and Peppadew-studded cheese sauce.

At Hill Country Chicken in New York, executive chef Elizabeth Karmel channels the Monte Cristo by dropping a coated, Texas-toast pimento cheese sandwich into the deep-fryer.

Culinary magnate Rachael Ray capitalizes on the pimento cheese craze with practically every conceivable interpretation: spread, burger and slider topping, a mac-and-cheese variety, a chicken stuffing. In the gilding-the-lily category, she, too, tops a burger with pimento mac ’n’ cheese. Googling pimento mac ’n’ cheese, by the way, yields 43,900 results.

Two excellent interpretations come from Charleston, S.C. As Food section readers might recall from the April 20 issue, Dupree and co-author Cynthia Graubart use the pate for the heavenly pimento cheese biscuits in their “Southern Biscuits” (Gibbs-Smith, 2011). Matt and Ted Lee’s recipe for pimento cheese potato gratin in their book “The Lee Bros. Simple, Fresh, Southern” (Clarkson Potter, 2010) sparked such interest, it was picked up in newspapers and magazines all over the country.

In two other dishes, pimento cheese morphs completely. Texan-born chef Matt Greco serves crispy cheddar curds with spicy pimento sauce at Brooklyn’s Char No. 4. In Denver, executive chef Peter List (not a Southerner) presented pimento cheesecake baked on a cheddar biscuit with spicy chowchow and fried onion on a menu at Beatrice & Woodsley. Atlantan Kevin Delk, one of the owners, explained that he lived on pimento cheese as a kid and looked for different vehicles for it outside the classic sandwich.

“We wanted to take it a bit further, to celebrate it and turn it into something a little more highbrow, if you will,” he said.

But there is such a thing as too much. Food Network stars and Memphis restaurateurs Patrick and Gina Neely slather corn muffins with pimento cheese and sprinkle bacon on top.

Dupree gets the last word on that.

“A cupcake? It’s making it into something that it never was before,” she protests. “I find it strange.”

Recipes:

The Commodore's Poblano Cheese Sandwiches

Pimento-Cheese Gratin

Hill Country Chicken's Fried Pimento Cheese Sandwich

Beatrice & Woodsley Pimento Cheesecake

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