One of Mom’s staples was a pimento cheese sandwich. And like a little black dress, she would dress it up or down depending on the social occasion. When friends came for bridge, she’d cut the bread into circles, spread pimento cheese on a bread round, and top it with another bread round. Then, she’d skewer an olive onto a frilled toothpick and pierce it, dead center, into the sandwich.
After an afternoon of bridge and several vodka gimlets, she’d make the same pimento cheese sandwich for us kids, though she’d skip the olive and omit the circle shape. One thing she always did when she made those sandwiches was to remove the crust, gimlet or no gimlet.
Growing up, I had a Pimento Cheese sandwich every day for lunch, which was my primary source of calcium and protein. I’ve tasted many versions of this spread through the years, some remarkable and some best forgotten. I am what I am today – the good and the bad – because of Pimento Cheese.
Mom made her recipe using processed Cheddar (it was the only “Cheddar” available to her), but these days I much prefer the rich flavor a good farmhouse Cheddar provides. My favorite pimento cheese is also made with homemade, lemony mayonnaise; making this from scratch was my father’s contribution to the recipe.
As a child, I had no idea that pimento was red pepper; I thought it was a condiment used exclusively in pimento cheese recipes.
It came as a shock when my mom shared the pimento facts of life; that they’re actually a variety of sweet red chili pepper. I still prefer my version of the truth: bottled pimentos are a special condiment used exclusively for pimento cheese sandwiches.
Today, chefs in the most fashionable restaurants have their own unique twist on this Southern regional food. They roast their own peppers, substitute creme fraiche for mayonnaise, for example, and season the spread with chipotle powder or smoked paprika. The bread they use is always moments from the oven, crusty and dense with yeasty flavor.
The bread Mama used was soft, plushy and white, surrounded with a thin caramel line she referred to, with disdain, as “the crust”. Switching out that bread for a fresh-baked artisan loaf was the only change I made to her simple recipe.
I initially left the dense, chewy crust on the bread – my favorite part. The crust-on version, however, did not taste as memory recalled. So I cut off the crust, bit into the sandwich again, and made a sound of pleasure only spirits are privy to hear.