STYLE

Southern staple pimiento cheese having renaissance as served up in trendy bars, restaurants

09/24/2014 11:33 EDT | Updated 11/24/2014 05:59 EST
RICHMOND, Va. - Could it be that the cocktail and craft beer scenes are making the "caviar of the South" suddenly hip?

They're certainly trying. Because that caviar — better known as pimiento cheese spread to the rest of us — is experiencing a renaissance of sorts around the country as trendy bars and restaurants catering to upscale drinkers have embraced the blend of cheeses and peppers as a funky accompaniment to hipster booze.

And it's showing up in all forms — dips, spreads, even fritters.

Pimiento cheese (also often spelled pimento) dates to at least the late 1800s, when the blend of pimientos (a sweet pepper) and cheese was served at formal gatherings. It quickly became a staple for the working man because it didn't require refrigeration. Often called the pate or caviar of the South, pimiento cheese also was an important food during war times and the Great Depression.

Perre Coleman Magness, author of the new cookbook, "Pimento Cheese," admits she didn't necessarily like pimiento cheese growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, but her fondness blossomed as she got older, when she decided it was a truly a wonderful thing. She spoke to The Associated Press about America's fondness of, and sometimes aversion to, the cheddar cheese concoction (responses edited for length and clarity).

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AP: Why is there seemingly such a love-hate relationship with pimiento cheese?

Magness: I think it might be the mayonnaise. There are some people who just have an aversion it. That combination of three simple ingredients — tangy, sharp cheddar cheese and pimientos, which have a bite but are not hot and spicy, and creamy mayonnaise — comes together in this amazing way that can translate into other recipes. When you explain what pimiento cheese is to someone who's not familiar with it, that doesn't sound like much. But when you put them together, there's just some sort of alchemy and you get converts.

AP: Is there a revival of pimiento cheese going on?

Magness: I've seen it in many forms in menus all over and I think it's concurrent to a resurgence in Southern cuisine and to Southern chefs feeling like it's OK to revisit the dishes of their childhood that maybe at one point weren't thought of as anything restaurant-worthy. Southerners have been serving pimiento cheese at cocktail parties and tailgates and social events since God was a baby. So it's sort of a natural progression for people who grew up eating pimiento cheese to sort of turn to that as the perfect snack.

AP: Are you a pimiento cheese purist?

Magness: I love seeing it used in all different ways. I love it when I go to a restaurant and they have something really unique that they've done with pimiento cheese. I can't say that I like every pimiento cheese that I've ever had, but it's a very personal taste. But I think it's fascinating to see people riffing on their mothers' recipe. One thing people particularly feel is that they have a vision of what pimiento cheese is, which may be based on the way their mother made it or their grandmother made it or the tub that someone bought at the grocery store when they were growing up, and any sort of deviation from that, they don't like. I'm not a big fan of pimiento cheese with pickles in it, but I know a lot of people who think pimiento cheese without pickles makes no sense.

AP: What do you make of pimiento's popularity?

Magness: This is something that people from the South have been making for generations and I certainly know people who say, "I can't believe there's pimiento cheese on the menu at this high-end restaurant ... That's something you eat at home." But they love it. I think it can only go up. I didn't realize that pimiento cheese was so evocative for so many people. It definitely holds a great sense of memory and I think that's maybe how it's ended up on menus in places like New York City.

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ZESTY PIMIENTO CHEESE

Start to finish: 15 minutes

Servings: 16

4 ounces cream cheese

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons marinated hot peppers (or pickled jalapeno slices)

2 tablespoons marinated garlic cloves (or plain garlic)

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

4-ounce jar chopped pimientos, drained

8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

8 ounces shredded pepper jack cheese

In a food processor, combine the cream cheese, mayonnaise, hot peppers, garlic and mustard. Process until smooth. Add the pimientos and pulse just until combined. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add the cheddar and jack cheeses, then stir to combine. Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Nutrition information per serving: 150 calories; 110 calories from fat (73 per cent of total calories); 13 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 40 mg cholesterol; 2 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 8 g protein; 240 mg sodium.

(Recipe from Alison Ladman)

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Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .

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