This summer we cleaned out my grandmother Mimi’s house, a herculean task (though it seemed more sisyphean at the time) which took a team of eight working in shifts a week to complete. Mimi now lives with my aunt, but she started life 93 years ago on that same parcel of land – and though her first home is long gone, the bricks from its fireplace are still amongst the camellias up by the highway. This four-lane highway now runs right through the middle of town but when Mimi was born it was a dirt road marked by hoof-prints and wagon tracks on the outskirts of town.
Many of the azaleas and camellias that bloom in technicolor each spring were planted by Mimi’s mother, whom I never met, but to whom I feel perennially connected. If I close my eyes I can remember so many parts of that land: deep inhales of the jasmine tree by the corner of the house; stepping down the hill toward the vegetable garden, looking for wild spring onions and four-leaf clovers; Mimi on her ladder, obscured by dense leaves high up in the fig tree; the secret cave-like spot she showed us inside the shrubbery; the impatiens, azaleas, camellias, lilies, roses, hydrangeas and ferns that she tended so carefully; all the good spots for hiding an Easter egg.
Food also invokes the sensuous, deep memories of time with Mimi and helps me feel connected to her even when I’m not with her. Countless times, I sat by the little outcropping of formica countertop where Mimi did most of her prep work, watching her chop onions, de-bone a chicken, roll out dumplings on torn-up brown paper bags, and stir together whatever magic she was working on. If I was lucky, what she was stirring together was homemade pimento cheese.
I think everybody in the family knows that I love cheese, but I might as well tell the rest of you: I love cheese. Love it. Used to melt it on a plate as a kid and congratulate myself for coming up with the most awesome snack idea ever. My love of cheese was directly proportional to Rachael’s hatred of it. She didn’t want to touch it, eat it, or have it anywhere on or near her plate. I couldn’t get enough.
There’s basically nothing better for a cheese lover than pimento cheese. Those of you outside the South may never have tasted homemade pimento cheese – and if you are unlucky, you may have tasted the whipped, pale orange, pre-made nastiness that grocery stores call “pimento cheese.” Forget that. Cast it from your mind. And there is no need for pre-made short-cuts like that junk because this is really the easiest thing in the world to make. You take three basic ingredients – grated cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and pimento peppers – mix together and you have created a substance that will forever endear you to anyone with whom you choose to share it.
Mimi’s variation on the dish was that she grated a little sweet onion into it. I like to add a dash of cayenne. You can add salt and pepper though if you have a very good, sharp cheese you probably won’t need it. It’s delicious served on crisp, cold lengths of celery or as a simple sandwich spread. If you really want to take it over the top, spread it on a piece of good white bread and toast it like Scott Peacock does at Watershed. Heaven.
Mimi’s Pimento Cheese
- Grated sharp, high-quality cheddar cheese (I use equal parts white and yellow cheddar, again following Scott Peacock)
- Mayonnaise (last week I used Vegenaise and it was a great substitute)
- Pimento peppers, chopped – Just enough to that you’ll have a couple of pieces in each bite.
- Sweet onion, grated
- Salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste
You want very good, sharp cheese and I prefer it to be pretty finely grated. However, if you use a coarser grater – or the shredder on your food processor – you’ll just end up with more distinct pieces of cheese, which is absolutely fine and delicious. I hate mayonnaise and so I have always used just enough to make this come together. You do NOT want to overpower the cheese at all – the mayo will just help it cohere and perhaps add a hint of tanginess. Mayo-haters like me can eat this spread and forget that the stuff is even in there.
Grate the cheddar in a bowl. Add chopped pimento peppers (available in small cans at the grocery store) to your liking – I think there should be just enough so that you have a piece or two with every bite. Add a small amount of mayonnaise and begin to mix together. While mixing, you will see if you need to add any additional mayonnaise. Grate onion to taste directly into the mixture, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste, and keep mixing until well-combined. Serve with crackers, celery, on sandwiches, or toasted on white bread.
* Last photo by Dan Leshem