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"It could be in a sandwich, on a cracker, in a lettuce wrap, folded in mac and cheese . . . It's like Bubba Gump Shrimp; there are 75 ways you could eat it." That's Sam Talbot, Top Chef alum, one of the original prep cooks at McCrady's and chef at Brooklyn's recently opened Pretty Southern. He's waxing poetic, of course, about none other than pimento cheese.
At his restaurant, you'll find the tangy spread on flaky buttermilk biscuits, in mac and cheese, and layered with vine-ripe tomatoes and pickled jalapeños on focaccia for a dreamy Southern grilled cheese (see the recipe). As grilled cheese freaks, we were blown away by Talbot's creation, and are officially declaring it this season's upgrade on everyone's favorite sandwich. It might not have the same melt factor as using a Kraft Single, but one bright and crunchy mouthful is enough to make you a convert.
Fortunately, you don't have to stop here to fulfill your deep-seated love (admit it) for this tangy spread. Elsewhere in Brooklyn, you'll find it with country ham on a seaweed house roll on the newly revamped menu at Tørst. Juniper in Saint Louis serves tomato soup with pimento cheese toast, and Portland, Oregon's Pine State Biscuits has it in between two fried grit cakes. "Awareness of Southern traditions and Southern flavors will continue to filter down to all types of diners," chef Ted Hopson of L.A.'s The Bellwether, who serves pimento cheese on a Nashville hot chicken sandwich, says.
"It doesn't matter the vehicle," Talbot says, "because when you have a great recipe with the key ingredients, the flavors meld perfectly."
At Pretty Southern, Talbot says "the response is always, 'Give me more.'" People write on the check that his mac and cheese is the best they've had. Ever. You'll even soon be able to buy Talbot's pimento cheese by the jar.
At its most basic level, pimento cheese is "the combination of cheese, mayo and peppers as a spread," chef de cuisine Rich Reimbolt of Austin's Josephine House says. This core trinity of simple ingredients means each one counts. Take the mayonnaise, for example. Talbot uses the cult favorite Duke's mayo, as do Southern chefs like Sean Brock and Vivian Howard.
This short shopping list also means that chefs have ample leeway to dress it up. At The Lark in Santa Barbara, the cheese is smoked Gouda and aged provolone instead of neon cheddar, while Hopson shakes up the pepper by adding piquillos to the mix at The Bellwether.
The only thing that exceeds pimento cheese varieties is the number of ways it can be consumed. Hopson's preferred method involves the restaurant's crispy french fries: "I usually dip the fry in our house-made hot sauce, then the pimento cheese," he says. Chefs Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth at NYC favorite Root & Bone say it's "a life-changing experience" to eat homemade pimento cheese. They suggest you "dip into it with your favorite crudités or mix it into your creamy grits for breakfast."
There's so much flexibility that pimento cheese doesn't even have to actually contain pimento peppers. Talbot prefers to use roasted red peppers in his recipe, which is what his grandmother always used. "It's a different kind of sweetness—a different flavor than pimento—but the same balance." Pimentos are actually just about the most mild pepper on the Scoville scale, ranking just as docile as their bell pepper look-alikes. So if you think of pimento cheese as spicy, that's likely due to the hot sauce or jalapeños that are often added in.
Another myth buster? Pimento cheese isn't as Southern as you think.
Though its yearbook superlative would easily be "the caviar of the South," it can thank the rise of food manufacturers in New York for becoming widespread.
Food writer and culinary historian Robert Moss explains that processed cream cheese and canned pimento peppers became popular around the same time in the early 20th century, just as it became fashionable for home cooks to mix ingredients into cream cheese. Unsurprisingly, pimentos in cream cheese caught on. Moss calls it "a wayward factory child adopted by a good Southern family, scrubbed up nice and invited to Sunday dinner." Since most pimento canning factories and growing operations were located in Georgia, the focal point eventually drifted South.
Northern roots aside, it has undeniably become a Southern staple—a comfort food right up there with biscuits and fried chicken. Southern writer Emily Wallace, who the New York Times calls a "pimento cheese scholar," calls it "the peanut butter of Southern childhoods." Talbot agrees, saying "I grew up eating pimento cheese sandwiches."
During a time when practically every chef and home cook seems to be tapping into their roots to uncover some sort of comfort, it's no wonder this familiar favorite is spreading across the land. When that retrospect involves a sweetly tangy, grilled pimento cheese sandwich, there's no need to look anywhere else.
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