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A Southern Icon

photo by Susy Morris/Chiot’s Run

It is hard to imagine a time in this country when people had to be enticed to consume cheese. But ’tis true.

Unless you’re a food historian, odds are you haven’t heard of Marye Dahnke. She doesn’t have the name recognition of culinary supernovas such as James Beard, Jacques Pépin or Julia Child. But if cheese is one of your “go to” ingredients in the kitchen, you probably should be giving Miss Marye props.
 
Dahnke was a Columbia University-educated home economist, one of the first to be employed in the food industry. She joined Kraft Cheese Company in 1925 and her first assignment in the company’s newly created home economics department was to hand out cheese samples at grocery stores in order to increase cheese consumption. She also traveled around the country demonstrating cheese recipes at schools, association meetings and in cooking classes. The original American cheese pusher.

At that time, the average cook knew of only three ways to use cheese—with macaroni, in a sandwich and alongside a slice of apple pie. I am loathe to think of a time when the world didn’t know the pleasure of nacho cheese dip dripping from a warm tortilla chip. Or a perfectly melted slice of cheddar blanketing a juicy burger. The airiness of a flawless cheese soufflé. Or the satisfying crunch of Cheetos. (Not that real cheese has ever touched a Cheeto, but the world would seem somewhat grim without them.)

We modern day turophiles are spoiled. Type “cheese” into the search feature on allrecipes.com and nearly 13,000 suggestions magically appear on your screen. Google serves up nearly 79 million hits. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” I’m not sure why. Has there ever been another so worthy of devotion? 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American eats more than 33 pounds of cheese a year. The figure is projected to rise to nearly 37 pounds in 2022. Need a visual? That’s the size of an average four year old. Clearly, Ms. Dahnke enjoyed some success in her efforts.
We Americans devour cheese in cubes, balls, rings and logs...deep fried, marinated, pickled and whizzed...in cakes and cupcake frosting...slathered atop fries, chili, hot dogs and burgers, stuffed inside pasta and melted into that creamy staple of Southern breakfast tables—grits.

I first made the acquaintance of a grit when I was seven, living in military housing in Germany. My best friend’s mother (she was from Alabama, speaking of foreign countries) made them for breakfast when I spent the night. I regarded them as a repulsive form of gruel and usually returned home, relieved, to my own mother’s sizzling pan of hash browns. It wasn’t until two decades later that I ate a bowl of hot cheese grits and hastily bestowed upon them most favored ration status. To borrow from the advertising repertoire of the American Dairy Association...behold the power of cheese.

That’s why my early reservations over the simple Southern classic, pimento cheese, remain a source of wonder to me. Cheese makes everything better. Even the pills one occasionally has to force down the throat of one’s recalcitrant cat.

So why then was I so troubled by the idea of pimento cheese? Maybe it was the abundance of mayonnaise. Maybe it was that dreadful sucking sound the spoon makes when you pull it out of all that orange moistness. Maybe it was the fact that my first bite of pimento cheese came out of a plastic container emblazoned with the name Ruth. I know Ruth has her devotees. I am not one of them. And, apparently, I’m not alone.

Wright Bryan, who penned a piece on pimento cheese for National Public Radio, assured listeners that “there is no need to go down the highly processed path to store-bought pimento cheese, which features an unnaturally fluorescent-orange coloring and slimy consistency.” Reynolds Price, the late scion of Southern culture, went further, describing prepared varieties of pimento cheese available in supermarkets as “congealed insecticides.” I sure hope there’s homemade pimento cheese in heaven.

Now where were we…? Ah, yes, that first bite of Ruth’s. My mind (and my mouth) remained closed for more than 20 years until an old friend who worked hole 16 at the Augusta National for more than three decades convinced me to try the course’s much ballyhooed pimento cheese sandwich at the Master’s Golf Tournament. I handed her my dollar (yes, one dollar—although these days it goes for a bit more), found a quiet spot under a loblolly pine and opened my mouth (and my mind) to pimento cheese done right.
 

Not too moist. Not too dry. Spread perfectly between two pieces of soft white bread. I finally got it. In fact, I got it twice. My friend greeted me with a knowing grin as I approached with another dollar in my hand. At less than the cost of a tube of ChapStick, the Augusta National’s sandwich is the best bargain in big league sports concessions.
If you need a point of reference, try the $15 prime beef sandwich at Yankee Stadium or the $20 Victory Knot at Dodger Stadium. That’s a lot of jack for a pretzel. But more than being easy on the wallet, the National’s pimento cheese sandwich—much like the Green Jacket itself—is an icon. Not since the mint julep of Churchill Downs has an ingestible item been so entwined with the identity of an event. Even the Almighty Wikipedia identifies the sandwich as the “signature item” of the golf tunamint, as they say ‘round these parts.

The mystery of pimento cheese lies in its simplicity. The basic recipe calls for a trio of ingredients: cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and those perky pimentos—the same dash of red you find filling the bellies of prepared Spanish green olives.

But as John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has said—pimento cheese “transcends its basic ingredients and becomes something grander.” Something people feel passionately about. Very passionately. Particularly in this town. Particularly during the first full week of April. An ESPN story published last year about the 2013 rendition of the pimento cheese sandwich at the Masters Tournament quoted golf fan Paul Jones: “I am fine with adding the female member and I am tolerating the belly putters, but changing the pimento cheese recipe is taking change too damn far.”

Like all classics, pimento cheese is being “interpreted” and “elevated” by modern cooks. I’ve eaten Parmesan pimento cheese, blue pimento cheese, feta pimento cheese dip with chipotle sauce, triple cream brie pimento cheese—clearly, not your Memaw’s cheese spread. One of my favorite variations is made with aged white and yellow cheddar, Duke’s mayonnaise and jalapeno peppers. The sharper and hotter the better. The Augusta Junior League’s Zesty Pimento Cheese (see sidebar)—well, that ain’t bad either.
Annabella Hill’s 1867 cookbook, Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book, suggests that pimento cheese might have evolved from a very practical need. Hill wrote that mixing fresh cheese with red peppers and butter was a great way to protect it from flies. (See “congealed insecticides” above.)

There’s also evidence to suggest that the pater familias of pimento cheese was not a Southerner at all, but rather a Dane —Johan D. Frederickson. His 1910 recipe for “Pepper-Cream Cheese” involved 10 pounds of American Neufchatel cheese and up to a half-pound of red peppers.

Is it possible that the paté of the South is not a Southern invention? People have written entire theses on the topic. I’m certainly not going to put the debate to rest in this column.

We humans are funny creatures. We put an awful lot of energy in attempting to know the unknowable. Who or what is God? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? What’s the secret to happiness? Why did the chicken cross the road? Does a bear sh…?

You get the idea. I know this. My answer to the pimento cheese question is simply, “Yes, please.” 

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