Southern Caviar: Pimento Cheese
Everyone remembers pimento cheese sandwiches in their lunch boxes, but today’s chefs and cooks have taken the iconic Southern staple to a whole
Most of the guests at Sea View Inn on Pawleys Island have been visiting for years. They come to enjoy the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the view of the South Carolina marsh, and Sassy Henry’s famous pimento cheese.
Henry and her husband, Brian, have been serving the delectable cheese since they bought and began running the inn in 2002. It started as an appetizer during Wednesday night shrimp boils and the guests loved it. It became so popular neighbors were asking for it. In fact, that’s how they came up with the name, even before it evolved into a business.
“We’d have parties,” Henry explains, “and one time our neighbor came over and asked, ‘Y’all have any of that Palmetto Cheese?’ My husband and I looked at each other and were like, that’s the name.”
Today, Sassy Henry’s Palmetto Cheese can be found in stores across the country.
Known as “the Caviar of the South” or “Pate of the South,” pimento cheese is made with cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos. Many remember it as a family staple growing up. There’s been a longstanding tradition of eating pimento sandwiches at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta.
Henry created her own version of pimento cheese while in college.
“When my husband, Brian, and I started dating we would go visit his mom and she always made pimento cheese, especially one with jalapenos, and he just loved it,” she recalls. “That was in the early 90’s. So, I started thinking nobody makes pimento cheese anymore, unless you’re going on a family vacation to the beach or something special, so I started playing around with it.”
She developed her own recipe. They were living in Atlanta at the time and going to a lot of tailgating parties at Braves games.
“Our friends would always bring fried chicken and say, ‘You’re bringing pimento cheese, right?’ And that’s kind of how I started making it my thing.”
Once they moved to South Carolina and it became a hit with guests at Sea View, Henry and her husband began selling their pimento cheese at a local seafood store. Soon, grocery stores picked it up.
“When our local Piggly Wiggly began selling it, it kind of went to another level because so many vacationers would take it home with them to Charlotte, Atlanta, Greenville, and elsewhere.”
Now, all three flavors, original, bacon, and jalapeno, are produced by Duke Food Productions in Easley, South Carolina. Each container features a picture of Vertrella Brown, a family friend and cook at the Sea View Inn.
“We’re in 47 states, and in about 9,500 stores, and in terms of how much we sell a week, it’s probably about 250,000 tubs a week,” says Henry.
While pimento cheese may be iconic to the South, it didn’t start there. North Carolina-native Emily Wallace, a writer and illustrator, did her master’s thesis on pimento cheese.
“It definitely didn’t originate here,” she explains. “You can find some early advertisements for it all over, and early recipes for it in New York or California. One reason it became so prevalent here is that pimento peppers were a big industry, particularly in Georgia, but also in other areas of the Piedmont South.”
Wallace moved away, then developed her interest in pimento cheese after returning home. While going to graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill for a Master of Arts in Folklore, she took a documentary food class where students were told to study something or someone in the food industry.
“I’d grown up with these tubs of the bright orange pimento cheese in our refrigerator like the Ruth’s brand or Star Foods you see in every grocery story in North Carolina,” she says. “I’d never given it much thought until I’d left the South, then came back, and started this grad program where you were taught to question everything. I wondered, what is this stuff I’ve always taken for granted?”
She says pimento cheese became popular because it was an inexpensive food people could easily carry with them.
“My grandmother had a recipe she always made. Then my mother, who worked in the textile industry, always had those brands I was talking about in the refrigerator. It’s what they would use for sandwiches to take to work.”
But while the cheese spread might have been inexpensive, the pimentos added something special.
“Pimento cheese was considered a fancy food at one point because of the pimento peppers,” adds Wallace. “They helped elevate it, so this was a way to eat a cheap food that also had a fancy air, I guess.”
Now considered a true Southern comfort food, many restaurants offer their own specialty pimento cheese. The Husk in Charleston has used Chef Sean Brock’s recipe for years. Katie Coss worked at the Husk in Charleston before moving to become executive chef at the Husk in Nashville.
“I guess you could say we’re very proud of our pimento cheese recipe,” Coss says. “Everyone has their own variation.”
While they use Brock’s well-known recipe in Nashville, Coss says their dedicated farm-to-table approach using only fresh, local ingredients, has it tasting slightly different.
“When I came here from Charleston, I noticed the pimento cheese here didn’t taste quite the same as it did in Charleston. It was because we’re sourcing locally, so the smoked cheddar’s going to taste different because the cows that we raise here eat different grass. There are so many variables that can affect your product even going state to state with the same recipe.”
Since cheese is the key ingredient, her best advice for anyone making pimento cheese is to splurge on the cheddar cheese.
Many restaurants finding new and different ways to feature pimento cheese. It’s often added to burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, biscuits, English muffins, and much more. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken in Nashville now serves pimento mac & cheese as one of its side dishes.
“It’s a great Southern dish that goes along well with fried chicken,” notes co-founder, Nick Bishop, Sr. He spent years in the restaurant business, getting his start with Morrison’s Cafeteria, so sides were a priority when he and his son opened Hattie B’s. He credits son-in-law, John Lasater, Hattie B’s executive chef, with helping developing the dish.
“We had a family gathering at the house, and John came over and we made a scalloped potato pimento cheese. I said, you know, there’s nothing more Southern than pimento cheese and macaroni and cheese, so why don’t we bring those two together and see what it looks like.”
Pimento Mac & Cheese ranks as one of the restaurant’s top sellers.
The possibilities are endless.
“I had a friend who made a tomato and pimento cheese pie,” says Wallace. “It was almost like a traditional tomato pie, but had pimento cheese in there, also. It was awesome!”
“It’s very versatile,” says Henry. “You can use pimento cheese for anything that requires cheddar cheese.”
Some 12 years after launching the business, Henry remains surprised by how quickly it’s grown. She attributes it, in part, to pimento cheese being a ‘memory food.’
“When we started selling it, and still today, we get these awesome letters from people saying they haven’t had pimento cheese or a pimento cheese memory like this since they were younger and their grandmother made it.”
She finds that very rewarding.