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Eat this! Pimento cheese, ruby-studded Southern comfort

Southern-style pimento cheese at Lillie’s Q. (Photo ©2010 by Leah A. Zeldes.)

Southern-style pimento cheese at Lillie’s Q. (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes.)

What it is: A highly regarded comfort food throughout the American South, pimento cheese is a red-flecked, orange-colored spread made from cheese, typically sharp cheddar; diced pimentos; mayonnaise; and seasonings. Recipes vary widely, and texture can range from chunky to smooth.

Charlie McKenna

Charlie McKenna

Where it comes from: Nobody knows who first combined pimentos, mildly piquant, heart-shaped sweet red peppers, with cheese, but commercial versions of pimento cheese began appearing in the early 20th century, about the same time that pimentos began to be grown in the United States. Ads from Chicago’s Kraft Cheese described it as “studded, like rubies.”

Pickled and bottled pimentos were imported from Spain until a Georgia farmer started a crop about 1916. Soon afterward, canning companies throughout the Southeast began bottling them, and Georgia became known as the “Pimento Capital of the World.” The state continues to be one of the primary producers.

The cheese spread remains beloved fare below the Mason-Dixon Line. In 2003, the Southern Foodways Alliance ran a contest, which led to a 200-page cookbook of pimento cheese recipes and reminiscences (alas, the book appears to be out of print).

What to do with it: Southerners eat pimento cheese on crackers, slather it on hot dogs and hamburgers, dip into it with celery, pack it into cherry tomatoes, stir it into grits, dollop it on potatoes and, most traditionally, spread it between slices of squishy white bread for pimento cheese sandwiches, as famously served at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. At Lillie’s Q, a new Southern-style barbecue joint in Wicker Park, Chef Charlie McKenna serves his version of pimento cheese with house-made crostini.

Lillie’s Q’s pimento cheese and crostini
Chef Charlie McKenna

Pimento cheese:
10 ounces extra-sharp cheddar (McKenna suggests Kraft Cracker Barrel Natural Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese)
2 4-ounce jars diced pimentos, drained
1 fresh jalapeno, seeds removed, minced
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon sugar
About 1-1/2 cups high-quality mayonnaise
(McKenna prefers Southern-style Duke’s Mayonnaise, available by mail order or locally at Cost Plus World Market stores)
Crostini:
1 baguette
Olive oil

Prepare the cheese: Let the cheese come to room temperature. Grate the cheese into a bowl and mix to combine with the remaining pimento cheese ingredients. Refrigerate for 8 hours to let the flavors meld.

Make the crostini: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Thinly slice the baguette and rub both sides of each slice with olive oil. Lay on a baking sheet and bake for 5 to 7 minutes, until browned and crisp. 6 to 8 appetizer servings.
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