There are few foods in this world that could claim to be a spread, a dip, a sandwich filling, and a condiment all at the same time, but pimento cheese checks all those boxes. A mixture of grated cheddar, diced pimento peppers, and mayonnaise, the “pâte of the South,” as it’s sometimes called, has long been a staple of the Southern table. But it wasn’t until recent years that it’s become a national treasure, one recognizable even to diners north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Although many also jokingly refer to pimento cheese as “Southern caviar,” this iconic spread actually has roots in the Northeast. It evolved out of necessity and convenience around the turn of the century at a time when two different food products—Neufchâtel, a soft, fresh cheese, and pimientos, a sweet red pepper imported from Spain—became commercially widespread. Resourceful home economists advised cooks to combine this plentiful but cheese with colorful peppers to create something tasty to spread on bread, and the concept of pimento cheese was born. It’s unclear exactly when pimento cheese was invented, but the earliest printed recipe appeared in 1912, and the combination of cheese and peppers soon became popular across the nation from Philadelphia and Portland.
Over time, Americans lost interest in the idea of pimento cheese as an economical way to make the most of two industrial food products. But in areas of the South like Georgia, which were central to the pimento growing and canning industry, cooks took to making a version of the cheese using ingredients at home, adding any number of flavorings such as onions, mustard, lemon juice, paprika, and Worcestershire for a personal touch. When made from scratch using fresh ingredients, pimento cheese became a favorite amongst the South’s blue-collar workers and upper-crust families alike; Eugenia Duke, the founder of Duke’s Mayonnaise, was well-known for selling her pimento cheese sandwiches to both textile mill workers and fancy hotel tea rooms at the same time.
Pimento cheese has slowly begun to creep back into the national conversation over the past decade and a half. When the recession hit, the product fit the bill as a convenient, economic appetizer that could please a crowd, and gained visibility when Southern cuisine began to experience widespread popularity. Always a food that defied socioeconomic barriers, it started appearing in a wide range of establishments, from barbecue joints to white-tablecloth restaurants.
Thanks to the humble qualities it’s come to represent, pimento cheese has built something of a cult following, one that occasionally reveals itself in particularly quirky ways. Fans can watch Pimento Cheese, Please!, a Kickstarter-funded documentary about the unassuming snack; they can also explore Columbia, South Carolina on a so-called Pimento Cheese Passport. Pimento cheese has even served as the inspiration for a pair of Adidas shoes.
Don’t expect this cheese trend to slow down anytime soon; in fact, studies show that pimento cheese is up 65 percent on menus compared to four years ago. You can find it served room temperature when it stars as a sandwich filling or a spread with crackers, or you might spy pimento cheese served warm, gracing a hamburger or a baked macaroni and cheese with its gooey melted goodness.
Here are some of the latest ways we’ve been spotting pimento cheese in the Bay Area:
As the gooey topping on the C&H Cheeseburger at Clove & Hoof
Mission, San Francisco
In a Southern Style Fried Chicken Sandwich at Wesburger
Served as a dip with crackers, radishes, and purple cabbage at The Kon-Tiki
In a Smoked Brisket Sandwich at Stay Gold Deli
Lower Nob Hill
In My Three Sons’ Pimento Cheddar Cheese Dip at Bel Clift Market
In the crispy chicken Free Range Ranch sandwich at Starbird Chicken
West San Jose
Spread atop a bagel with green olives at House of Bagels