Welcome to Hot Topics, in which Eater invites chefs and critics to chime in on a recent issue in food.
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November is National Pimento Cheese Awareness Month, and in order to bring attention to this very serious topic, Eater turned to several chefs for their thoughts. Some shared stories of pimento cheeses of long ago; others gave recipe tips, and still others weighed in on the philosophical significance of the mixture of mayonnaise, shredded cheese and pimentos.
As pimento cheese's popularity spreads beyond the South, what does that mean for the future of this iconic spread? Below, Elizabeth Karmel of Hill Country in New York, Hugh Acheson of Empire State South in Georgia, Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge and others attempt some answers.
Elizabeth KarmelRestaurants: Hill Country Barbecue and Hill Country Chicken, both New York City.
Here's my funny pimento cheese story: I was at the beach with my mother and we rented a condominium and I was dying for pimento cheese. So of course she said, "I'll make you some pimento cheese!" We looked around, we got all the ingredients at the grocery store, and we looked around and there wasn't a grater. So I looked at her and I said "Oh no! We can't have pimento cheese, there's no grater!" And she said, "Oh, Elizabeth, what do you think people did before graters?"
So she let the cheese get a little bit warm, and she took a dinner plate, took a fork, you know, just a fork that you eat with, and she slowly mashed the cheese and the pimento and the mayonnaise together until she came up with pimento cheese. Honestly, you couldn't tell that someone hadn't grated it. It was perfect pimento cheese. And, you know, when she was really young, that's how her grandmother made pimento cheese, with a dinner fork. I come from a family of fork cooks. Some people use whisks and wooden spoons, and in my family we're fork cooks. So much so that in my knife roll I have a blending fork.
Karmel informs Eater that properly-made pimento cheese uses hand-grated cheese at any cost. None of that pre-grated stuff.
Hugh AchesonRestaurants: 5 & 10, Athens, Georgia; Empire State South, Atlanta, Georgia.
Pimento Cheese is a versatile southern staple that is very much in the limelight these days. When made with great ingredients, it can really shine and easily becomes this wonderfully homemade artisanal product. Buy really good cheddar. Don't buy orange cheddar. White is better for this. No funny stories really, but at age 30 I finally overcame my aversion to the thought of pimento cheese. The idea of mayo and cheese mashed together took a while for my stomach to adjust to. You can take the boy out of Canada...
Drew RobinsonRestaurants: Executive chef of Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, multiple locations.
There is a renaissance of sorts happening with pimento cheese right now. As a mainstay of church picnics and ladies luncheons it's nice to see the rise of pimento cheese among chefs and food savvy people. Oddly, a pimento cheese culture has risen that is not dissimilar from the barbecue culture where people cling passionately to their recipes and argue vehemently as to what's best and why.
At Jim 'N Nick's we love our pimento cheese but don't really delve into heated debate. For us, it's more a reminder that food is a place where we identify our common ground. The greatness of pimento cheese lies in its diversity. It is not unique to one racial or ethnic group. The flavors from recipe to recipe are as unique as the individuals that swear by them.
Linton HopkinsRestaurant: Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta, Georgia.
The reverie of pimento cheese makes my mother laugh because pimento cheese is something that's always present in a Southern kitchen. It's in everyone's home refrigerator but we don't talk about it. I think this shows that in a world with few high-art/low-art distinctions, something can be perceived as so simple and everyday, but when made with quality, can become a hallmark of Southern hospitality and good food. Pimento cheese is the first hello to a guest at my restaurant.
John T. EdgeFood writer; Director, Southern Foodways Alliance.
Glad to see the Yankees are catching up.