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Pimento cheese is a spread made with shredded cheese, mayonnaise, and sweet cherry peppers. It is an American cheese dish most popular in Southern states from the Carolinas through Alabama and Georgia, and inland to Kentucky and Tennessee. Recipes vary somewhat by locale, but all center around very basic, easy-to-use ingredients. The spread is popular as a dip, as a cracker topping, and as a simple sandwich filling.
Cheddar cheese is the traditional foundation for any pimento cheese dip. Aged yellow cheddar is the most common, but other types of cheeses, including white cheddar or Monterey Jack, are also used, either in combination with or in place of the yellow cheddar. The cheeses must be shredded or grated in order to incorporate properly into the dip.
Mayonnaise and basic spices like salt and pepper, cayenne pepper, or a dash of hot sauce are then added to the cheese and blended to make a chunky sauce. Finely chopped cherry peppers, also known as pimentos, are added last. Some cooks also add onion, garlic, or dill pickles, largely depending on location: different communities and regions have their own traditional pimento cheese recipes. The mixture is stirred, chilled, and served. No cooking or melting is required.
Within communities, differences in pimento cheeses stem largely from type of cheese, brand and amount of mayonnaise, and intensity of spice used. Southern cooks have been known to debate the finer points of how cheese should be grated, as well as the proper ratio of mayonnaise to grated cheese. Pimento cheese is known in many places as “the pate of the South,” and aficionados tend to take its preparation seriously.
The precise origins of the spread are unknown, but its earliest documentation is believed to have occurred in 1901. Perhaps owing to its simple, inexpensive ingredients, it remained a staple throughout the Great Depression and two World Wars. The spread remains a modern favorite.
Pimento cheese was traditionally served on appetizer platters alongside crackers, vegetables, and French bread rounds. Many hosts in the 1950s and 1960s presented it alongside Benedictine spread, a similar cheese dip made with cucumbers rather than pimentos. Benedictine spread is traditionally green, whereas pimento dip is orange. The colors were often used strategically to liven up finger food displays.
Home cooks across the United States still make and serve pimento cheese spread today. It is a very common addition to sandwiches. Traditionally, a pimento cheese sandwich was little more than the spread layered between two pieces of white bread, but it is increasingly also appearing in more gourmet settings: as a grilled cheese sandwich on artisan bread, for instance, or as an accompaniment to a sophisticated roast beef sandwich.