Texans take pimento cheese for granted, but my family recipe has given me some small fame along California’s Central Coast where I live. People here consider themselves hip about good food, but they’re ignorant about pimento cheese.
I know this sounds incredible to any self-respecting Texas woman who whomps up a batch of pimento cheese while she’s cooking breakfast, soothing a crying baby, shooing a husband off to work and shuffling two snail-moving kids out to the school bus. After she gives it a taste test, she spoons it into a crock, shoehorns it into the fridge and begins her day.
All this without breaking a sweat or before she shifts into her I am W-O-M-A-N mode. No biggie, she says, pimento cheese is nothing special.
That’s the way I felt growing up in Texas, where the women in my family made pimento cheese at least once a week. It was just always in the fridge. My sister and I ate it as an after-school snack smeared on Club crackers; it was my dad’s favorite midnight refrigerator raid; and the family ate it for Saturday lunch, whatever, whenever.
But now I say that homemade pimento cheese is special. Even our 39th president is a big fan and mentions pimento cheese sandwiches in one of his books, Christmas in Plains: Memories. Jimmy Carter remembered that when he was a kid, if his family didn’t have Christmas dinner with relatives, his mother, the feisty Miss Lillian, made pimento cheese sandwiches for that meal.
Until I married a Californian and moved west, I took pimento cheese for granted. Imagine my surprise to find that these people who were not from Texas or the South had never heard of pimento cheese. They thought it was that stuff in little bitty jars on the grocery store shelf.
This became clear to me when the library in our little California town held a fundraising literary tea. We decided to offer the standard afternoon tea fare, including sandwiches. The food chairwoman told us volunteer sandwich makers that the sandwiches should be attractive but filling, since men would be there. Those of us who’d read Barbara Pym’s British novels already knew that if MEN were present, food should be substantial.
When Madam Chairwoman asked each of us what kind of sandwiches we would bring, I said pimento cheese. She looked less than thrilled, and I realized she thought I’d be smearing that stuff from those little bitty jars on bread and that my sandwiches would look meager with the bread dried out and faintly curling at the edges. You know the kind—tacky choke sandwiches.
Well, imagine her surprise when on Tea Day, I plopped down a large silver tray of my beautiful, bountiful, golden cheese sandwiches, flecked with red pimiento, chopped green onions, minced darker green olives and tiny capers, all bound with Hellman’s, a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a pinch of Tabasco and no crusts. Pym would have loved them, and my Texas grandmother, my mother and aunts would have beamed their approval.
My sandwiches were the first to go.
After that, everyone wanted me to bring pimento cheese sandwiches to book club, church suppers, the poker group, all potlucks and PTA meetings. They still do.
This fall, my pimento cheese fame moved up the coast to the San Francisco Bay area. I took that old Texas classic—a huge white platter of pickled jalapeños stuffed with pimento cheese to a tailgate picnic before a 49ers game. People went ape over them. By now I had learned to simply say “Thank you,” not “Good heavens these old things, why, down home we serve these at every goat roping, barrel race, piano recital and sweet sixteen party from Galveston to El Paso.”
And the cheese beat goes on. Last week, I folded a half cupful of pimento cheese into my twice-stuffed baked potatoes—big hit. Pimento cheese on rounds of grilled bread is my version of bruschetta. Next week, I’m making a beautiful pimento cheese pizza for my book club. I’ll sprinkle on grated Cheddar or longhorn cheese, strips of pimiento and bell peppers, chopped green olives and onions, then drizzle olive oil over the top and bake.
Hey, I didn’t say the pizza would be authentic, but it’s gotta be as Italian as that ham and pineapple pizza they sell at the franchise pizza joints. Mine’ll be gorgeous, too.
So please don’t take pimento cheese for granted. It is special, and every Texas woman has her own twist to the family recipe. I love ’em all, even the ones with Miracle Whip. And in a pinch, I’d even go for some of that stuff in the little bitty jar spread on a saltine at midnight.
Juddi Morris never calls it pimento cheese spread—she thinks that sounds too tea-roomish. She’s waiting for Texas Co-op Power’s great food editor to run a pimento cheese recipe contest. Morris, who may be contacted at [email protected], would love reading how co-op members make their own pimento cheese.