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Our Coast’s Food: Classic Pimento Cheese

A pimento cheese BLT was on the menu at the late Nick's Diner that operated in downtown Wilmington. Purists tolerate say pimento cheese belongs all on its own on soft white bread, but even they'd have to admit that this sure looks good. Photo: Liz Biro.

A pimento cheese BLT was on the menu at the late Nick’s Diner that operated in downtown Wilmington. Purists say pimento cheese belongs all on its own on soft white bread, but even they’d have to admit that this sure looks good. Photo: Liz Biro.

This is part a monthly series about the food of the N.C. coast. Our Coast’s Food is about the culinary traditions and history of N.C. coast. The series covers the history of the region’s food, profiles the people who grow it and cook it, offers cooking tips — how hot should the oil be to fry fish? — and passes along some of our favorite recipes. Send along any ideas for stories you would like us to do or regional recipes you’d like to share. If there’s a story behind the recipe, we’d love to hear it.

If someone on the North Carolina coast asks you if you want a “pamena” cheese sandwich, you’ve hit gold.

“Carolina caviar” and “southern pate” are other names for the preparation you are about to receive, assuming you are in your right mind and said yes to the offer.

“Pamena,” is southern for “pimento” as in “pimento cheese.” The recipe has gotten downright uppity at restaurants, supermarket cheese counters and the home kitchens of foodies who can’t let classics rest. In my mind, no version matches the South’s simple blend of mayonnaise, Cheddar or hoop cheese and sweet red peppers named pimento. Old-timers still call the combination “pamena” cheese.

I’ve seen pimento cheese containing fresh garlic, Jarlsberg cheese, Chinese hot mustard, ground ancho chili and wasabi. One recipe I found suggested a mix of Velveeta and Miracle Whip on tortilla chips instead of the old-fashioned pimento cheese sandwich on white bread.

Well, bless their hearts (translation: they have no idea what they’re doing).

Many a mama has made pimento cheese in eastern North Carolina. Tubs of old-fashioned pimento cheese are sold in country convenience stores and old-school grocers like Piggly Wiggly. A pimento cheese sandwich remains a quick, tasty, nourishing lunch for farmers, fishermen and road workers.

A lot of pimento cheese is found east of North Carolina’s I-95 and west, too, but it’s probably not a North Carolina invention.

A German man served beer and cheese spread at his Frankfort, Ky., saloon in the early 1900s. The South’s British ancestors are famous for potted cheeses. Some research claims that the first pimento cheese was like the stuff you buy in those little Kraft jars, all cream cheese and sweet red peppers prepared and packed in a factory.

Well, bless their hearts.

Southerners may have been inspired by all the marketing that surrounded early commercial pimento cheese in jars. If they were, I think they made pimento cheese better. They grated some of that big round of hoop cheese you still see in N.C. country stores and mixed it with sweet red peppers that grew so well in the South. Homemade dressing or the South’s famous Duke’s mayonnaise held it all together.

Pimento cheese on toasted French bread. Photo: Liz Biro

Pimento cheese on toasted French bread. Photo: Liz Biro

However it came about, pimento cheese is ubiquitous in the South and now more famous that those early commercial versions. At 95-year-old Robert’s Market in Wrightsville Beach, hundreds of pounds of true pimento are sold each week. You’ll find Robert’s pimento cheese at supermarkets like Harris Teeter, too.

Years ago, when the Robert’s spread was made by the loving hands of Mary Shepard, I talked with her about the recipe.

“You can’t have it,” Shepard said.

The secret formula is former market owner Eva Cross’ old-fashioned recipe, Shepard said. All Shepard would tell me about Robert’s pimento cheese was “it’s the real thing,” a mix of “the right mayonnaise,” good cheese, pimentos and “maybe a little something else.”

Shepard was well familiar with “the real thing.” The Brunswick County native grew up on a farm, where she learned to make pimento cheese from her mother, who she figured learned it from her mother.

Shepard wouldn’t give me that recipe either. She said she would pass it on to her children, although she didn’t have the recipe written down.

“I just know it by heart,” she said.

Old-fashioned Pimento Cheese

Based on my chat with Mary Shepard, I developed this recipe. The trick to pimento cheese is getting the correct ratio of cheese to peppers to mayonnaise. The mixture should be soft enough to spread but not so soft that it runs out the sides of your white bread sandwich, untoasted, of course. You may serve it on crackers, preferably Ritz. Bless my heart, I’ve even spread it on fried pork skins.

1 pound hoop cheese or sharp Cheddar cheese, orange not white

1 7-ounce jar chopped pimentos

Tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper or ground black pepper, to taste

1⁄2 to 2/3 cup Duke’s mayonnaise

Finely grate cheese and place in a large bowl. Gently stir in pimentos and Tabasco sauce or pepper of choice. Fold in mayonnaise. Stir until smooth, but do not mash. Mixture should have noticeable bits of pimento. Refrigerate three hours or overnight. Makes about 3 cups.

Source: Liz Biro

About the Author

Liz Biro

Liz and her family came to North Carolina for the expansive beaches, friendly atmosphere and fresh seafood. Since arriving as a child, she’s never looked back at her native New Jersey. A journalist for 25 years, she's covered everything from local fisheries to politics. Liz left it all behind for a while to become a chef and run her own catering company. Today, she writes about food and dining for the Indianapolis Star and for Coastal Review.