July 27, 2017
It’s a staple of our diet at luncheons, wedding showers and funerals, a simple snack or a gussied up party food. Pimento cheese is the magnolia, the mint julep, the Moon Pie and RC Cola of spreads, the most Southern of all the sandwich fixins’.
Except not. Incredibly, shockingly, pimento cheese hails from the North, created when a soft cream cheese from an upstate New York farm met a jar of pimientos from Spain. It's documented culinary history, and what can we say to that except so what? Everyone knows that today, pimento cheese (we lost the Spanish “i” long ago) is a Southern touchstone.
The sad pimento cheese of our youth, at least for many of us, was store-bought and either Mrs. Weaver’s or some similar sweet and runny version. Nevertheless, we persisted with our affection, learned to make our own and got by on that for years until it was no longer necessary. I might have missed a few, but the chain for me was La Baguette, then Holiday Ham and finally Tom’s Tiny Kitchen pimento cheese, all considerably different from each other but good in their own right. Each is accessible to-go (Holiday Ham and Pimento’s are the same; Tom’s is available in most grocery stores including your neighborhood Kroger). And thanks to them, no more grating cheese at home unless I just want to.
Five to TryTo launch Five to Try, a new occasional dining feature, we tried five other pimento cheese spreads that are also to-go products. While we know that many restaurants serve a good spread and you can get it to go, we wanted to stick with the basic walk in, pick it up and pay product. (However, take a look at my Facebook page at facebook.com/jennifer.biggs.100 if you want to see a photo of the pimento cheese scone at Lady Bugg Bakery in Hernando; a road trip is in order.)
Are these the rest of the best? I can’t say, because I haven’t tried all the others. But they’re good and spread around town, so you can try what’s convenient to you and see what you think.
Creamy. Thick. Mayonnaise-Heavy.Pimento cheese comes in three basic varieties: Creamy, mayonnaise-y and thick. For points of reference, La Baguette is mayonnaise-heavy; Tom’s is thick, and Holiday Ham/Pimento’s is creamy (different from mayonnaise as it contains more cream cheese).
Kathy Katz’s Cooper Street 20/20 (800 Cooper; 901-871-6879) offers three pimento cheese selections: Plain, Zesty Southwesty and Spanish olive. All are thick, solid versions, made with little mayonnaise, and all start with cheddar, mozzarella, cream cheese, spring onions and roasted red peppers. They have a lot of flavor, even the plain, and compare in texture and taste more closely to Tom’s than La Baguette or Holiday Ham. Prices are $6 for an 8-ounce container of plain or Zesty Southwesty and $7 for Spanish olive. While you’re there, pick up a pack of Cowboy Crackers.
Face it: Everything at Porcellino’s Craft Butcher (711 W. Brookhaven Circle; 901-762-6656) is good. The pimento cheese is no exception. It’s the spiciest of the ones I tried, a creamy-thick variety generously spiced with cayenne, but with the heat offset by cheddar, Havarti and cream cheese, a bit of tang from pickles and mayo, and flavor from the pimentos, of course. And it's $4.50 for an 8-ounce container. To go with? Grab a big log of the frozen chocolate chip cookie dough and bake it.
At the newish to-go shop Le Jardin (2877 Poplar in Chickasaw Crossings Plaza; 901-672-7000), the pimento cheese is one of more than a dozen spreads and dips available refrigerated or frozen. (The store also offers entrees, salads, sides and canned items.) The consistency is very nice, slightly creamy at room temperature but still leaning toward the pleasantly thick side. It’s milder than Cooper Street’s and Porcellino’s, but it has plenty of kick, too. It’s $7 for an 8-ounce container. Also buy: Pickled quail eggs, because why pass on that? Be warned that they’re hot—lots of jalapenos.
Bluff City Coffee (505 S. Main Street; 901-405-4399) now offers pimento cheese in the cooler. It’s basic and mild with spice, though sharp with cheese flavor, with a slight tanginess that seems to come from the pimentos. It’s $5.95 for an 8-ounce container, Downtown and you can be in and out, with your pimento cheese and your Nutella “poptart” in hand.
It’s pimento cheese, but at Hope Church (8500 Walnut Grove; 901-755-7721) it’s called—get ready--church cheese. It’s been named the best pimento cheese at Soup Sunday twice, and I get it. It’s creamy, with enough spice to let you know it’s there but nothing to hurt. Hours of availability vary according to the season, but you can always buy it around church services on Wednesday and Sunday, and on other days once school resumes; be safe and call for hours before you head that way. It’s $7 for a 16-ounce container. Might as well take home a container of roasted corn dip, too.