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'P' is for Perfect

Pimiento (or is it pimento?) cheese has exploded onto the dining scene … but what do you really know about Southern pâté?

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Give me a 'P'! Give me an 'I'! Give me an 'M'! Give me an 'ENTO'! What do you get? PIMENTO! As in pimento cheese. Now, that's a Cheffed-Up cheer if I've heard one. If you haven't experienced pimento cheese in some form in the last year, you should really begin to reevaluate your life. Pimento cheese is everywhere, from diners to fine dining. We're almost at the point where it's difficult to find a menu that doesn't offer pimento cheese in one version or another. In fact, it's become almost as popular as Jags gear here in the 904.

Though pimento cheese has picked up the highbrow term of "pâté of the South," it's actually a very simple, homey recipe:

First, grate some cheddar cheese into a bowl, add one-quarter of that amount of softened cream cheese, and about the same amount of diced pimentos as the cream cheese, then a pinch of sugar and a pinch of cayenne. Stir to combine and add enough mayonnaise to bind the whole thing together. Brilliant!

In the past 80 or so years, pimento cheese has become synonymous with Southern cooking, but its origins can be traced to New York rather than Alabama. I'm with you here-that makes me want to spit it out, too. How can something from the cold wastelands of New York not only be popular in the South but be considered an iconic dish of our region?

Our story begins in the early 1900s, when imported canned Spanish pimientos became wildly popular in New York. Simultaneously, a new type of processed cheese based on French Neufchatel cheese was introduced by a New York dairy farmer. These two unlikely companions were brought together with mustard and became an overnight sensation. The combination of cream cheese, canned pimientos and mustard took New York by storm, and then spread to other regions of the U.S., including the Deep South. The demand for pimientos became so great, Georgia farmers developed a domestic version of the Spanish pimiento to satisfy all. It probably went by the name Bull Dog pepper.

By the end of the Second World War, the popularity of this tasty condiment began to wane in most of the nation and mass-produced versions began to disappear. In the South, instead of discarding this toothsome spread, home cooks embraced it, tweaking and Southern-izing the original recipe. First, mustard was abandoned. Then the amount of cream cheese was either reduced or removed completely, replaced by mayonnaise and cheddar cheese. Somewhere along the way, the second 'i' also vanished, leaving only the humble yet tasty pimento cheese.

Today, you can find commercially produced versions of this beloved spread-usually made by small regional businesses. There's a company on Pawleys Island, South Carolina, producing Palmetto Cheese. In this version, they simply added chili peppers and gave it a South Carolinian name. VERY CHEESEY but still tastes good. Here in Jax, there's a guy named Jack Barrett who produces a few different renditions, which he calls PimChee, available at Grater Goods in Murray Hill.

Just the other day, I was having a Cheffed-Up lunch in Five Points at The Bread & Board and, lo and behold, I saw pimento cheese on the cheese board. Down the street at Hoptinger, it's smeared on a chicken sandwich; it goes really well with about any tasty sample from the massive beer selection.

Some of my other favorite places to indulge in this "Southern pâté" include BLK Sheep, where this delightful condiment's stuffed inside olives and fried. Over at Nola MOCA, there's a really cool deviled egg and pimento cheese BLT. Gilbert's Social doesn't miss the boat when it comes to this Southern treat either-it's used in a variety of ways, depending on Chef Kenny's whims. Over at Moxie, you can nibble on pimento cheese toast between sips of a Bloody Mary during brunch.

I guess what I'm trying to get across to y'all is that pimento cheese is everywhere, and I, for one, am pleased. So go out and enjoy this adopted Southern specialty at almost any restaurant in Northeast Florida.

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