Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Pimento Cheese, If You Please


Food history is a funny thing, cause once grandmothers get involved, no one minds fudging the truth for a good tale. Take pimento cheese. Today we all think it's an emblem of Southern cooking--heck even Wikipedia suggests its nicknames are the "pâté of the South," "Carolina caviar," and "the caviar of the South."

Turns out mashing together pimento peppers and a soft cheese started in the northern U.S., only to make its way to a hundred southern variations by the middle of the 20th century. Arguably every family had their way, using or eschewing mayo, zipping it with more spice, subbing in red bell peppers--cheaper, more available--for pimentos (also spelled pimiento to further muddy the recipe waters). Starting the 1940s it became a thing at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, GA, its orange glow almost as famous as the winner's green jacket. It's still a thing there today, for a mere $1.50 a sandwich. That's another attraction of the spread--it could be made cheaply, if people so desired. You don' have to gussy it up like the James Beard-winning New Orleans cocktail bar Cure with Hooks 2-year cheddar. (That version is delish, though.)

All that prelude is to get us to Birdie's, hoping to take the pimento cheese market by storm. The founder of the company, Robin Allen, loved the snack as a child. As an adult, she and her husband Glenn owned their own printing business together for 25 years, and were considering trying their hand at something different.

As the website puts it: 

A revitalization grant brought a farmers market to the Allen’s home of South Hill, Virginia; and soon after catching the market bug, Robin and Glenn came up with a plan to sell three flavors of pimento cheese--just for one day--at the market, just to see what it was like. Turns out, they loved everything about it. The town of South Hill, VA paved a clean path for Robin and Glenn to get their pimento cheese inspected and their business established, and after that first day--making new friends over pimento cheese, feeling the thrill of the sale, and selling out all 30 tubs of cheese they had in stock--Robin and Glenn had a hunch that this might be their next life. A few months later, they sold the printing business and started making Virginia’s pimento cheese full-time. Birdie’s Pimento Cheese was born.

The basic recipe is the standard cheddar, mayonnaise, cream cheese, pimentos blend. They keep the cheddar in its shredded state, not doing a full whip and mix, that makes it a bit more homestyle and hearty transom variations. (Yep, even the texture is a matter of family tradition, locale, and taste preference.) What truly makes Birdie's stand out is they offer a series of variations on the basic blend, and those shine and sing--especially the Garlic Parmesan and Jalapeño in the photo, offered along with pita chips for fine buffet skimming at a friend's recent birthday fête. They certainly know how to add flavor yet keep things in bright balance. Other options include Cream Cheese + Black Pepper, Smoked Gouda + Roasted Red Pepper, and seasonal varieties. 

Note, their site also offers all kinds recipes--whipping it into your mac and cheese, slathering it on hot dogs, bringing cheesy goodness to an egg salad sandwich. It's hard not just eat it "raw" though, if you ask me, with the help of your favorite cracker. Or finger, if no one's looking.

(It's only available in northern California stores right now, but you can order online.)

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