Southern cuisine has given us some real gems throughout history. One of them is undoubtedly pimento cheese, also known as “The caviar of the South,” “Carolina caviar,” or “Pâté of the South.”
Everybody in the South has their own secret recipe, favorite mayonnaise brand that goes in, and of course, everybody claims their pimento cheese is the best. Besides enjoying such an iconic place in southern culture, pimento cheese also has a pretty interesting back story.
Read on to find out how this delicacy made its way into the American culture and how it became a staple food in the South.
What is Pimento Cheese?
For all Northerners who haven’t had the opportunity to try pimento cheese, it is a spread made with shredded cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, pimento peppers, and a number of seasonings and secret ingredients that vary from region to region.
Pimento cheese is mostly served cold with crackers, bread, tortilla chips, or celery as finger food. It is also a delicious option for a quick lunch, and many people choose a pimento cheese sandwich when they need a quick meal on the go.
People mostly serve it for church lunches, family events, picnics, and other social gatherings. Many Southern folks have fond memories of their childhood and pimento sandwiches made by their grandmas and aunts.
As Larry T. McGehee explained it in his Southern Seen columns: “It’s [pimento cheese] one of those major southern distinguishing institutions, right up there as a subject of debate with religion, politics, barbecue, biscuits, gravy, mint juleps, and the proper age for curing of country hams.”
So, how did it all start?
The History of Pimento Cheese
For many Southerners, pimento cheese tastes like home. However, even though this spread may be the most popular in the South, it didn’t originate there. How and when exactly it got there is a little bit of mystery, but it happened during the first half of the 20th century.
The history of pimento cheese includes two essential components: cream cheese and pimento peppers. Here is how each ingredient played an important role.
The Story of Cream Cheese
Although today’s pimento cheese recipes require hard cheeses such as shredded cheddar, they initially used cream cheese.
Cream cheese first appeared in New York state. After the Civil War, the dairy industry was expanding fast, and farmers were trying to find the best products. One of the legends says that a farmer from Chester, New York, called Charles Green invited a cheesemaker from Europe to learn a thing or two about the cheesemaking process. This was all happening in the 1870s, and the goal was to learn how to make famous French cheese called Neufchatel.
The legend states that their conversation somehow got to William Lawrence, who tried to replicate the recipe but used the wrong measurements, which resulted in a softer product known today as cream cheese.
Although now mostly considered a myth since some recipe variations could be found in cookbooks of the early 19th century, Lawrence and Green were the first people in the United States who mass-produced it. They ran respectable cheese factories in the late 19th century and helped spread Neufchatel in the US.
The beginning of the 20th century saw five or more companies of New York Neufchatel companies. They patented several varieties, including cream cheese produced by mixing Neufchatel with cream, which resulted in the softer product that we know today.
Interestingly, somewhere along the way, Philadelphia was the city that became linked with cream cheese, and the Phenix Cheese company from New York launched its Philadelphia Brand. It soon became a top-selling brand, and it’s still going strong today.
Now, let’s see the other part of the winning equation.
Around the late 19th century, sweet red peppers from Spain were imported to New York and became available to the US public. Similar to bell peppers, but milder, pimiento peppers started to find their place in the American culture. The second “i” got lost along the way, and everybody started calling pimiento peppers “pimentos.”
Shortly, the Spanish companies began canning and selling them in larger quantities. That significantly boosted pimentos’ popularity in the US, which triggered some farmers in Georgia to think about potential business opportunities.
Until then, pimentos have been a very pricy imported good and in high demand. Farmers from Griffin, Georgia, saw an opportunity and decided to cultivate them. They started around 1911, and in the next decade, the pimento growing business flourished. Some estimates say that by the year 1938, there were 25,000 acres with pimento peppers around Griffin. The biggest brand was Pomona Products Company, which manufactured and sold around 10 million canned pimentos each year.
The popularity of pimento cheese in the South can probably be linked with Georgia’s production. Even though the domestic companies were shipping them nationwide, this Southern delicacy just didn’t stick in the North.
First Pimento Cheese Recipe
With these two new products and their increasing popularity in the US, it was only a matter of time before they were mixed together. Another big thing was happening at the same time in the American culinary world. A women-led reform movement to bring scientific innovation to the home called Domestic Science or Home Economics was gaining momentum.
Cream cheese and pimento peppers were the embodiment of scientific innovation. With a mild flavor of cream cheese and sweet, inoffensive flavor and flashy red color of canned pimentos, both ingredients were used in many recipes. For instance, in a 1908 article in Good Housekeeping, it was advocated that these red peppers should be adopted by housewives because “These are juicier and richer than the ordinary sweet green peppers, while their vivid color lends an attractiveness to any dish.”
The article offered the first recipe for pimento cheese sandwiches using soft cream cheese, minced pimentos, mustard, and chives. The following year, an Up-to-Date Sandwich Book featured another pimento cheese sandwich recipe with Neufchatel, pimentos, and a little salt, spread over buttered bread.
Many magazines besides Good Housekeeping and Up-to-Date Sandwich Book began printing different recipe variations for pimento cheese sandwiches in the following years. The domestic popularity was quickly growing because they were easy-to-make, affordable, delicious, and filling.
The Evolution of Pimento Cheese
Obviously, the initial pimento cheese recipes were far from the traditional southern food staple we know today. Today’s basic ingredients are white cheddar, mayo, pimentos, and salt and pepper to taste. However, depending on the region, some extras may include horseradish, hot sauce, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, onions, dill pickles, cayenne pepper, red pepper, paprika, or jalapenos.
Short after homemade recipes became available, the first commercially-made pimento cheese hit the market. Machine production made it easier to dice pimentos and mix them with Neufchatel curd with a dash of red pepper. And although most of the manufacturers were still based in New York and Wisconsin, pimento cheese was available across the country, from Minnesota to South Carolina.
Georgia’s pimento growing boom from the 1920s to 1940s was probably why pimento cheese became so popular in the South. The Pimento industry was booming, the peppers became more affordable, which was a win-win situation for everybody.
After World War II, the popularity of commercial pimento cheese was going down. But then, something beautiful happened. Southern cooks did what they do best – they gave a special touch to this recipe, making it a southern staple food we know today.
Mild cream cheese and Neufchatel were first replaced with grated hoop cheese and then white cheddar cheese for more intense flavor. They added mayo in the equation for creaminess to balance everything out and get nice country-style food. Surprisingly, it’s usually the mayo where most southerners have heated differences about the right choice for pimento cheese.
Hellman’s is popular in the upper South, especially Tennessee and Kentucky. Blue Plate Mayonnaise is a hit in Louisiana and Mississippi. The most popular one is probably Duke. Interestingly, Eugenia Duke, the founder of Duke mayonnaise, first sold pimento cheese sandwiches to soldiers in South Carolina. After learning that the reason why her sandwiches were such a hit was her mayonnaise, she decided to bottle it and make the Duke brand. The brand found great success, and Duke mayo quickly spread outside South Carolina and across the country.
Why Is Pimento Cheese Called Caviar of the South?
When pimentos were first imported to the US from Spain, they were pretty pricy. That’s why they were considered a delicacy up North. The first pimento cheese was served at fancy dinner parties, whether in crustless sandwiches or on top of crackers. It was definitely food for the rich, which may be the reason why people regarded it as the South's caviar.
After the canned Spanish red peppers and cheese became more widespread, pimento cheese was used as food for the working class. Working in factories required little free time, and it was desirable for people to eat while still on the track. That’s why sandwiches with pimento cheese and white bread were a perfect option. They were easy to make, affordable, delicious, wouldn’t take much of your working time to consume, and could power you through your working shift.
Although pimento cheese’s popularity mostly occurred thanks to the working class, it is still viewed as food for the elite by some.
Another reason why pimento cheese is called caviar of the South is because it is not pretentious. Similar to caviar, it is often spread over crackers and consumed as finger food. However, it presents a clear distinction from the North. It is simple yet delicious, which is the real reason why it became a Southern icon.
People like it so much that it’s even traditionally served at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. The change of vendors for the tournament even caused an uproar, which should paint an excellent picture of how passionate Southerners are about this.
Where to Buy Pimento Cheese?
Pimento cheese is not that popular in the North. In fact, many people have not even heard of it.
If you ask any Southerners where to buy the best pimento cheese, they’ll tell you that nothing is like a homemade version. Family recipes add a little something special to everything, so they are often the best choice.
If you don’t like the idea of experimenting and making your version, there are many delicious homemade options available online on the Goldbelly website. With several different brands that have perfected family recipes over the years, these spreads are tasty and convenient. You can order packs where you get the crackers as well, so you get a perfect snack for any opportunity. Once you try it, you’ll understand why people in the South like it so much.
It was invented in the North, probably in New York state.
The creation of pimento cheese is somewhat of a mystery, and the recipe appeared in several magazines at the beginning of the 20th century. There were some earlier versions as well, so there is no person you can pinpoint as a sole inventor.
These sweet red peppers come from Spain.
If you ask any Southerner, they will probably tell you that they have the best recipe. Nothing like making a homemade pimento cheese from a family recipe. Cheddar, diced pimentos, mayo, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, and whatever that “little something special” is, it’s incredible how there could be so many variations of this simple food.
The Bottom Line
Pimento cheese is a Southern icon. It is mostly consumed in church outings, family gatherings, and social events as finger food. The simplicity and tastiness are what make it so unique.
When you look at how simple the recipe is, you wouldn’t think that pimento cheese had such a turbulent story. However, we can definitely say it has earned its title of the South’s caviar after all this time.