Growing up in southern Oklahoma, I never knew there was any other pimento cheese spread but Price's. It came in a heavy foil box, all ready to go on slices of white bread that were so fresh they would give way under the weight of that thick, cool spread.
My mother-in-law, the late Gladys Jones, grew up near Johnson City, Tenn., where many of those little jars of pimientos are processed. She was quick to point out the particulars of pimento cheese to me after I married her only son. She explained, "Honey, I neevah use bought puhmenna spread!”
That was the start of my understanding about how particular Southern folks are about their pimento cheese. As far as my mother-in-law was concerned, her version, made with extra-sharp cheddar cheese, was the only way to make it.
In 2003, members of the Southern Foodways Alliance were invited to submit writings that included our recollections of pimento cheese. We were also invited to include our recipes for a Pimento Cheese Invitational, sponsored by the Southeast Dairy Association.
Southern Foodways Alliance is an organization born out of the workings of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. The focus of the organization is the food of the South and how it came to be and is today.
The history of pimento cheese spread started with the sweet heart-shaped pimiento pepper. At maturity, the pepper is bright red. I have grown these peppers in my Oklahoma garden with good results, but Georgia leads the nation in pimiento pepper production.
The pepper itself is thought to have originated in Spain.
Southerners have canned this prolific-producing pepper for generations. It is also the pepper that is used to make paprika.
Kendra Meyers, an Atlanta playwright who pursued the history of pimento cheese spread for the Southern Foodways Alliance, said, "The moment of harmonious convergence of the humble pimiento and sharp cheese remains a mystery, but we do know that already prepared spread was featured in Southern groceries as early as 1915. Pomona Products Co. founder George Reigel of Griffin, Ga., began canning Sunshine Pimentos in 1916, making it even easier for home cooks to produce their own versions of it.”
We also know that pimento cheese spread has been practically a staple on Southern tables through the Great Depression years and into this century.
It was economical and could be kept in the refrigerator to spread on bread for a quick lunch, served with the usual iced tea.