Pimento cheese occupies similar space in the Southern food lexicon as grits do. Some Northerners don't quite get it. Southerners adopt it into their routine so thoroughly, it becomes part of the dialect. If you turn your nose up at either, many a Southerner might advise you to kiss their grits.
The origins of the cheese, mayonnaise and sweet-pepper spread are murky, though some say it has highfalutin roots owing to the once-hefty price of the imported Spanish pimentos that gave the dip — sometimes called the pate of the South — its name.
But in "Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook," Perre Coleman Magnes says enterprising Southerners began planting their own red peppers, which fared just fine in the sun and heat below the Mason-Dixon Line, making pimento cheese more readily accessible.
The first mention of a recipe mixing red peppers with cheese appears in "Mrs. Hill's Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book," circa 1867, Magnes writes. But, during World War I, when resources were scarce, pimento cheese — along with the Duke's mayonnaise any proper Southerner preferred as a binding agent even then — were popularized by the housewives who sold them at North Carolina cloth mills to make a little extra cash.
Even if pimento cheese is still recognized as an iconic Southern staple, its sudden ubiquity has it appearing on menus all over the country. The Gothamist, a New York City-based blog, began its coverage of pimento cheese in 2007, with an earnest description of just what that stuff is you might find smeared on your burger. Five years later, it got serious with a list of the best places to find the spread in the city.
But that's not to say every Northerner is familiar.
Ragan Lewis and Tara Letts, owners of the Colorful Palate and True South Food, are both Macon, Georgia-raised Southerners, with one crucial difference: while Lewis' parents are Southern through and through, Letts is a first-generation Southerner. Her parents hail from New York, which is about as far-removed from Dixie as it gets.
Letts said pimento cheese was barely known to her family, which preferred a pantry full of naturally colored foods to the shocking orange palette of Kraft cheese. "They didn't think about it at all," Lewis said. "It didn't register on their radar."
The dinner table was also devoid of pimento cheese in the Letts household, where her mother was a bit of a health nut. But grandmother's house saw plenty of the mayonnaise-and-cheese spread.
When Letts and Lewis opened their catering company, Colorful Palate in 2002, their pimento cheese immediately became a hit among their clients. "People started saying stuff. Like, 'Holy crap, that's good,'" Letts said, laughing.
So popular was the duo's take on the spread that they decided to branch out into a side business, True South Foods, a line of homemade sauces and spreads with pimento cheese flavors including, pecan, smoked Gouda and the spicier El Diablo.
Now the kitchen staff turns out more than 100 eight-ounce containers every Tuesday. Such is the level of production that the company is now looking at larger retailers to see if it's time to make the leap.
The main secret? A proper "cheese-to-muck ratio," Letts said. "If it's too mucky, too wet, it feels like you got cheated on the cheese part."
The ladies' take on Southern pate is cheese-heavy, and what kind of cheese goes into that recipe is also key. True South skips the bright-orange processed cheese Letts remembers from her youth in favor of Vermont or New York white cheddar. Heresy? Letts says no. Though some say her paler version doesn't resemble the real deal.
"And we say, 'Just eat it.'"
True South's pimento cheese can be ordered as a dip at Urban Orchard, on a gooey grilled cheese at the Woolworth Walk Soda Fountain, smeared on a burger at Roman's Deli, in the refrigerated case at the Weinhaus, and a host of other options (see a list of locations below).
And from noon-4 p.m. Aug. 1, Letts and Lewis will host a demo at Williams-Sonoma in Biltmore Village, focusing on pimento cheese.
Cheese at the fair
That's apparently pimento cheese weekend in Biltmore Village, as right down the street the Village Art & Craft Fair, Aug. 1-2, will host the Cathedral of All Souls' Taste of Heaven Food Booth.
As is traditional, the booth features meatloaf sandwiches, but homemade pimento cheese sandwiches will debut this year. A nod to August summer heat, the booth will have some lighter southern picnic fare, as well.
The cheese spread, which All Souls' has named Heritage Pimento Cheese, is the recipe of parishioner Pat Hayes' mother and grandmother.
"Making pimento cheese sandwiches was a regular summer lunch, picnic and church supper regimen in our family, so the recipe has lots of sentimentality for me," Hayes said.
Like many family recipes, the recipe is not precise (take a stab at it with our recipe below). It is, however, mostly made from memory, as is the case with many crocks of pimento cheese you'll find on Southern tables.
The art of adding personality to pimento cheese, perhaps, has become as Southern as the spread itself.
10 PLACES TO GET PIMENTO CHEESE IN ASHEVILLE
• Asheville Sandwich Co., 491 Sardis Road/794 Haywood Road: Smeared on a fried-green tomato sandwich.
• Bean Vegan Cuisine, 2145-A Hendersonville Road: Totally vegan and served with chips.
• Biscuit Head, 417 Biltmore Ave./733 Haywood Road: Smeared on a pulled-pork biscuit.
• Creekside Taphouse, 8 Beverly Road: Breaded, deep-fried and served with green tomato jam.
• Early Girl Eatery, 8 Wall St.: In a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich.
• Homegrown, 371 Merrimon Ave.: Served with veggies and flatbread.
• Mayfel's, 22 College St.: Baked over split cornbread.
• Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack, 1455 Patton Ave./3749 Sweeten Creek Road: Stirred into creamy grits.
• Tupelo Honey Cafe, 12 College St./1829 Hendersonville Road: Stuffed in an omelet with fried green tomatoes and pickled jalapenos.
• Universal Joint, 784 Haywood Road: Served on ciabatta with cucumber salad.
WHERE YOU CAN BUY TRUE SOUTH PIMENTO CHEESE
• Woolworth Walk Soda Fountain, 25 Haywood St.
• Urban Orchard Cider Company, 210 Haywood Road.
• Weinhaus, 86 Patton Ave.
• 12 Bones South, 3578 Sweeten Creek Road.
• Artisan Gourmet Market, The Village at Cheshire, Black Mountain.
• Merry Wine Market, 108 W State St., Black Mountain.
• Hickory Nut Gap Farm Store, 57 Sugar Hollow Road, Fairview.
HERITAGE PIMENTO CHEESE SPREAD
Pat Hayes' Old Family Recipe:
2 bags grated sharp cheddar cheese (8 oz. or 12 oz. bags)
OR 1 bag sharp cheddar and 1 bag Mexican or any white grated cheese
4 ounces jar diced pimentos, drained (Dromedary brand)
Mayonnaise mixed with Kraft Miracle Whip (total ¾ to 1 cup. The Miracle Whip lends a little more zing or tartness to the milder mayo taste)
3 to 5 dashes of Texas Pete hot sauce
Salt and pepper to taste (use white pepper if black spots bother you)
Mix all together lightly and put in food processor. Pulse until desired consistency. Add more mayonnaise or Miracle Whip as desired. The mixture will firm up after refrigerated, so more mayo may be needed at serving time.
• Note: White cheese added to the sharp cheddar makes a nice blend of flavors. Keep refrigerated
IF YOU GO
What: Cathedral of All Souls' Taste of Heaven Food Booth at the Village Arts and Crafts Fair. The booth will sell homemade cakes, cookies, tea loaves and bread. Tables for picnicking will be set up in the church garden.
When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug.1 and noon-6 p.m. Aug. 2.
Admission: Free. The fair is sponsored by New Morning Gallery, nearby in Biltmore Village. Food variously priced; booth proceeds are distributed as grants to local nonprofit agencies.