When we think of the fundamental dishes that comprise Southern cuisine, classic treats like fried chicken, homemade biscuits and silky grits immediately come to mind. However, the South features a plethora of lesser-known regional food specialties, and they’re largely designed to serve at parties, gatherings and barbecues, all giving a nod to the major Southern emphasis on hospitality.
A prime example of Southern party grub involves cheese-based dips and spreads; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a social engagement below the Mason-Dixon line that doesn’t include a platter of crackers and a specially-seasoned blend of cheeses, spices and condiments. Southern cheese dips come in numerous forms and incarnations, but if you’re looking for a solid starting point, we encourage you to sample these three iconic versions.
Arguably the grande dame of all Southern cheese spreads, pimento cheese relies on simplicity.
“[Pimento cheese] is a dish that is archetypal in its Southern-ness, in that it could not be more plebeian in its ingredients or the technique required to make it, but it [also] could not be any more comforting or transportive,” chef John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, told HuffPost. “I remember my grandmother laughing about the fact that we charged $6.50 for it when we opened. She’d roll over in her grave if she knew it cost $12 now.”
In its most basic form, pimento cheese includes shredded cheese (usually cheddar or a blend of processed cheeses), mayonnaise and chopped cherry peppers, also known as pimentos down South. From there, chefs can riff and customize to their heart’s content.
When asked about his must-add ingredients for pimento cheese, Currence had a clear answer: “The essential ingredient for me is grated onion, added to taste. My mom and grandmother used to grate onion for everything. It eventually fell out of style in cooking and was very much [considered] a ‘housewifey’ technique. But I love grated onion and use it in all kinds of things. I also tend to lean on pickled jalapeños, and I like to throw everything into a food processor and add a little cream cheese so it can work easily as a spread (without destroying crackers) and on a sandwich.”
“Big Bad Breakfast” Pimento Cheese
Courtesy of John Currence
1/3 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 cup grated havarti cheese
1/4 cup minced pimentos
1/4 cup minced bread-and-butter pickles
3 tablespoons bread-and-butter pickle juice
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste
Grated onion, to taste
Crackers for serving
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the cream cheese at medium speed until soft and creamy, about 3 minutes.
2. Add the cheddar, havarti, pimentos, pickles and pickle juice, grated onion, mayonnaise, Tabasco and cayenne and mix at low speed until smooth and well combined, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Serve immediately or chilled with crackers.
Kentucky Beer Cheese
Home to Churchill Downs and the nation’s most revered bourbon distilleries, the state of Kentucky also offers a delicious regional snack combining cheesy goodness and a little hint of booze: Kentucky Beer Cheese. Kentuckians adore this local specialty for its ease, its flavorful nature and its flexibility.
“I have been eating beer cheese as long as I can remember,” chef Newman Miller of Star Hill Provisions at the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, told HuffPost. “My dad would always make our families beer cheese and it is still the base of the way I make it even today. I think it’s become a staple [of Kentucky cuisine] because it’s just that tasty and easy to make.”
A blend of grated cheese, aromatics and beer (of course), Kentucky beer cheese can be supplemented by countless ingredients, giving you plenty of opportunities to adjust the taste profiles to your exact preferences. “Taste and texture are two fun elements to play with in your beer cheese. I like mine spicy, so sometimes I’ll add Sriracha and fresh diced jalapeno peppers,” Miller said.
As far as beverage pairings go, Miller has a few suggestions: “If I am drinking a beer [with beer cheese], I like a classic pilsner like Lagunitas or Trumer ... but beer cheese also goes well with a bourbon highball or an Old-Fashioned!”
Kentucky Beer Cheese
Courtesy of Newman Miller
1 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese
12 ounces of beer of your choice (Miller prefers Country Boy Cougar Bait American Blonde Ale)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Garlic to taste
Sriracha to taste
1. Grate cheddar cheese by hand.
2. Add all ingredients to a saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking until fully combined.
3. Add garlic and Sriracha to taste.
4. Serve warm with crackers.
Mississippi Sin Dip
A deep love for college sports and tailgating parties represents a crucial part of the Southern cultural experience, and this fondness also contributes to the development of excellent viewing-party snacks. One especially-beloved example? Mississippi Sin Dip, a tasty concoction that includes cheddar cheese, ham and vinegar-based hot sauce.
“Mississippi Sin Dip has become a staple [due to] the long-standing Southern affinity for college sports,” executive chef Andrew Wilson of The Emporium Kitchen and Wine Market in Savannah, Georgia, told HuffPost. “Through tailgating and bowl parties, it’s become the modern Southern version of spinach dip or the ‘cheese ball.’”
Because it’s a pretty ubiquitous offering at Southern social events, plenty of variations on the recipe exist; for instance, Wilson calls his own twist on Mississippi Sin Dip “Savannah Sin Dip.”
Wilson uses a specific serving strategy when making his Savannah spin on Sin Dip: “I like to serve Mississippi Sin Dip in a hollowed-out round loaf of sourdough bread that’s been baked until the dip is warm and gooey. I up the ante by substituting a combination of Benton’s country ham and ’nduja (a spreadable pork salumi) for the regular cooked ham, as well as smoked paprika and plenty of Crystal hot sauce. If I’m feeling fancy, I sometimes make hors d’oeuvres by piping the Sin Dip onto crostini and garnishing each with a bit of crispy fried country ham.”
Savannah Sin Dip
Courtesy of Andrew Wilson
1 cup cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups sour cream
2 cups finely shredded Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup ’nduja (Wilson prefers La Quercia)
1/2 cup country ham, minced (Wilson prefers Benton’s)
1 poblano chile pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and finely diced
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Crystal hot sauce (can add more to taste)
1/2 cup green onion, finely sliced
1 tablespoon black pepper, freshly ground
Kosher salt, to taste
1 round loaf of country bread, a thin pieced sliced from the top and reserved, and the interior hollowed out
Potato chips for dipping (Wilson prefers Zapp’s Cajun Dill Gator-Tator Chips and Zapp’s Voodoo Chips)
1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well.
2. Season to taste with kosher salt and hot sauce.
3. Fill the hollowed-out bread shell with the dip and top with the reserved top slice.
4. Wrap in foil and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 hour.
5. Serve with potato chips.