Great Pimento Cheese Competition – Finalists Announced
Well folks, we've finally made our way through upward of 300 entries in the Great Pimento Cheese competition, and are pleased to announce our three finalists.
After an exhausting comparison of essays and recipes, the three finalists below represent our top picks from the wagonload of entries. Many thanks to the writer/cooks who took the time to share their stories of this bright orange culinary hallmark.
The overall winner of the competition will be announced at the 2003 Southern Foodways Symposium (October 2-5 in Oxford MS) and duly honored for their contribution to Pimento Cheese culture.
The finalists (in alphabetical order) are:
I grew up in Coffeeville, just down the road from Oxford. It was and is a small, close knit community where everyone knows almost everyone and people take care of each other. My family is still there, and my "Pimento Cheese Story" is about my very special aunt who lived there her entire life, with the exception of the time she was in business school, until her untimely death in 1996. We, and her many close friends still miss her terribly. She was one of those people who have a deep impact on the community in which they live. An indication of how closely her pimento cheese sandwiches were associated with her is indicated by the fact that her minister, Daniel Hathorne, mentioned them in his sweet eulogy for her. He said that he didn’t know who had been making the pimento cheese sandwiches in Heaven before she got there, but they were going to have to move over now because she was going to be in charge.
Her name was Ella Hughes Griffin Sides, she was named for her Grandmother, Ella Hughes Stovall Gum. She loved her name and you could tell who grew up with her because they all called her Ella Hughes, as opposed to just Ella, of her later life. My brother Hilly, could not say Aunt Ella when he started to talk and he called her “Lella”. It stuck and eventually even people outside the family called her by that name. Lella was famous, and I do mean famous, for her pimento cheese. While other people prepared casseroles as a preferred "funeral" food, "Lella" would arrive with a huge platter of delicious pimento cheese sandwiches. It is not that she didn't have other items in her food repertoire, she was a marvelous and experimental cook. (When she would eat out, she would come home and try to replicate something if she enjoyed it.) She just knew that everyone loved (and expected) her sandwiches. So, anyone was ill, had a death in a family, had company coming or there was a church gathering here she came with her wonderful platters of sandwiches. She made them for my parent's fiftieth wedding anniversary, but most of them never made it out of the church kitchen, my friends helping with the celebration and family members sneaking back had pretty much devoured them before we could put them out. When a relative lost her mother, her granddaughter Beth Mann then either 3 or 4, took the sandwiches that Lella brought to a back bedroom because she didn't want to share them!
My favorite story about the sandwiches, however, occurred when I wanted to learn how to make them. I called Lella and asked how she made her sandwiches. She started with "Well, first you make the mayonnaise". I interrupted her and said that I was not going to make homemade mayonnaise, just to give me the proportions on the cheese, pimentos, and spices. There was a long pause and then she said "Well, you might as well not bother"-- in her mind if you didn't make the mayonnaise and start from scratch, you might as well get Mrs. Weaver's!!
Lella's sandwiches were not that unusual, I don't suppose. They contain the same ingredients that most recipes do--perhaps it was just the extra dose of love that went into them that made them so good. I know that raw eggs are not recommended today, because of the risk of salmonella--but you better believe that when I make these sandwiches--I make the mayonnaise!!
One note, because Lella loved to cook, she was always on the cutting edge as to what new accessories were out for the kitchen. Once she fell in love with them she might keep them forever and nurse them along because she loved what they did and how they did it ( her oven/stove combination was an example of this) but she always wanted to try new things, therefore she was the first person I knew (and maybe the first person in town) to have a microwave. She got her Cuisinart food processor when they first came out and loved it--I don't know that her original model was ever replaced--she gave me mine because she thought that everyone should have one and mine is still going 21 or 22 years later. Consequently, the way her recipe reads has references to the food processor, while that was certainly not how she made it in her early life, gallons of pimento cheese have come out of her kitchen prepared with the food processor. So first . . the mayonnaise . . .
The Recipe – Lella’s Pimento Cheese
Makes about 1 cup of mayonnaise, we usually double it to have enough to also spread on the bread.
- 1 egg
- 1 cup oil (add 1/4 in the beginning, reserve 3/4 cup)
- 1/2 tsp dry mustard
- dash cayenne
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 Tablespoon Lemon juice
- onion powder to taste
Place all ingredients in food processor (or blender), reserving 3/4 cup oil. Add remaining oil slowly while processing. (We use the metal blade on the processor.) As I have said, my processor is old, but the tool to push food in the processor has a tiny hole to allow air in. (I don't know if they all do.) My sister-in-law, Libby Griffin discovered this trick while learning to make Lella's mayonnaise. If you put the pusher in the opening and pour your oil in the pusher--it allows a tiny constant stream of oil to be added to the mayonnaise while you are processing. Using this method, we never have the mayonnaise separate.
Please understand, Lella was an old-timey cook. She didn't often use measurements (usually the only time was when she was baking) so that is why the recipe reads as it does. If you consider it I will try to work on some measurements if you deem them necessary.
"Lella's Pimento Cheese"
- Cheddar cheese, grated, about 1/2 a food processor full
- 1 small jar whole pimentos
- dash onion powder
- dash red pepper
- dash Worcestershire sauce
- pinch sugar (less than 1/4 tsp)
- Homemade mayonnaise
Blend grated cheese and pimento in food processor until well blended. Add mayonnaise as needed, blend again, add other ingredients, blend. (The pimento cheese is a solid color and you cannot see the pimentos once blended.)
Note: Lella loved Pepperidge Farms very thinly sliced bread, both white and wheat. She would cut the edges off the bread (of course!) and spread just a dab of mayonnaise on one slice of bread, and then thinly spread the pimento cheese on the other side, put the slices together and add the sandwiches to the platter. Cover them with a dampened tea towel (again, of course!) until all were made. (She always made up the entire batch of pimento cheese into sandwiches while it was freshly made and pliable.) She would then wrap the whole shebang with Saran Wrap within an inch of its life, and put them in the fridge. (You don't mess around with mayonnaise). When it came time to take the sandwiches to the event, she would leave them out a few minutes to return to room temperature. ( I don't mean to imply that she made the sandwiches far in advance, for example, she usually rose around five in the morning, if she needed them that day she might go ahead and make them, and take them to a friend in early afternoon.)
(If absolutely necessary, if I am taking the sandwiches to an event, not family I will substitute Hellman’s—but never for family, they would not forgive me!—Also there is currently a problem getting Pepperidge Farms bread in Oxford.)
My Family History of Pimento Cheese
As a small child in an eastern North Carolina town, blustery winter Saturdays were spent “in camp.” Camp was a “special place” behind the boarded walls of the attic, accessible by slithering through a small opening at the rafters onto an island of carefully spread planks over the ceiling joist. The “campfire” was provided by a vivid imagination and a 12 volt flashlight. A daisy chain of extension cords and an old Motorola radio provided all the entertainment a red-headed, freckled-faced, Opie looking 5-year-old cowboy could wish. Saturday morning was the Buster Brown Show, sponsored by shoes of the same name. Each week Smiling Ed McCoy told stories to his sidekicks Froggy the Gremlin (Hi-ya kids! Hi-ya, Hi-ya, Hi-ya!) and Midnight the Cat (niceeee). My all time favorite story was Bomba the Jungleboy and his great Bull Elephant Tela. I can still hear the sound of Tela’s trumpet. This Saturday ritual was regularly accompanied by three of my favorite “campfire” treats: My mother’s homemade pimento cheese, homemade fried apple pies and cold fresh milk (our in-town neighbor had a cow and shared). Mother’s pimento cheese was hand ground in a #2 Universal Sausage Grinder and made from a wheel of sharp cheddar cheese, pimento, Duke’s Mayonnaise and black pepper. The apples for the pies came from the tree in our backyard and in season it was my duty to gather apples every morning and afternoon. The apples were peeled and sliced by mother who arranged them on white sheets spread over Adirondack chairs in the backyard to dry. The dried apples were hung in cloth sacks for the winter. Mother’s chunky pimento cheese spread thickly on Merita white bread, warm golden brown fried apple pies and a big glass of cold milk from Henry Moss’s cow (lowered over the attic wall by a loving mother who respected a cowboy’s need for space) could turn a nasty winter day into a not-to-be forgotten memory.
Almost sixty years later on a Saturday when the wind is howling and sleet mixed with snow pelts the window pane and I cannot bird hunt, I long for my “camp,” a thick pimento cheese sandwich, a fried apple pie, cold sweet milk and Tela.
Below is my mother’s pimento cheese recipe with a
half dozen modifications to transform it into an Old South comfort food
with a New South twist.
The Recipe - New South JalapeNo Pimento Cheese
New South Jalapeño Pimento Cheese
- 1 pound extra sharp cheddar cheese (I like Tillamook)
- 1/2 pound mild cheddar cheese (Kraft is good)
- 1 eight ounce pack Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese
- 4 rounded tablespoons Duke’s Mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
- 2 seven ounce jars Dromodery pimento pieces (drained)
- 2 seven ounce jars Cento roasted red peppers (drained)
- 1/2 twelve ounce jar Mt. Olive jalapeño slices (drained)
Grind through sausage grinder, hand grate or process with blender in grate mode the extra sharp cheddar cheese and mild cheddar cheese separately. Place sharp cheddar cheese and mild cheddar cheese in separate bowls. Into a large blender (I prefer Cuisinart) place half of the sharp cheddar cheese, half of the mild cheddar cheese, half of the mayonnaise, _ of the pimento pieces and 1/2 of the roasted red pepper pieces. Blend. Add half of the Worcestershire sauce and 1/2 of the cream cheese in small pieces so as not to jam the blender. Blend until you have a smooth creamy dip consistency (approximately 1 minute). You desire a dip consistency that will hold on a cracker or rigid chip. Next add 1 ounce jalapeño slices for a mild dip, 2 ounces for a heartier dip and 3 ounces for a spicy dip. Blend. This blending should take approximately 1 minute. Repeat the blending process with the remaining half of your ingredients. My Cuisinart blender will only hold 1/2 of this recipe at a time. Store in tightly sealed containers (preferably glass) in refrigerator. Note the taste of the jalapeños will intensify with overnight storage. To my taste the dip has a nice pimento cheese start and a jalapeño finish but not to lingering. I prefer the mild dip for a gathering with sweet iced tea, the heartier dip for a gathering with wine and the spicy dip for a gathering with longnecks. Total preparation time is approximately 5 minutes.
Notice right away that you and I pronounce the word differently. That's
OK. Georgia and Mississippi are quite different places. This weekend I
am heading to a family reunion in Tifton, GA. where I am sure menta cheese
will take a star's role. I hope you like my memories as much as I liked
remembering them and as much as I like eating menta cheese.
Menta cheese signaled celebrations and all the seasons. Summer brought bare feet, sweet tea, and menta cheese samitches. When school started, the very favorite samitch from the Roy Rogers lunch box was menta cheese, thermos-squished and scrumptious. In November, we were thankful for menta cheese in celery sticks, so elegant in a crystal dish. Santa Claus’s treat? Well, menta cheese, of course. He never left a bite. Valentine's Day meant tiny mounds with itty bitty pimento hearts on top. Almost too beautiful to eat, but eat it we did with abandon, with crackers, and with fingers.
Cheese, a bunch of it, sharp cheddar, rat cheese with the wax rind is best, grate it on the middle hole of a three hole grater into a large bowl. Add enough black pepper so that you can really see the pepper. Grind it if you are feeling fancy; otherwise just sprinkle it from the can. Drain the juice from a jar or two of pimentos and put in with the cheese. Stir. Add Hellman’s mayonnaise, just a little at a time. Taste. That’s the best part. Keep adding cheese, pimento, pepper, and mayonnaise until it tastes right. You’ll know. The trick is to stop just when it tastes right and not when you have eaten the whole bowl and not saved any for your guests. That’s it. You can add anything else to it if you like: pecans, curry, Tabasco, cumin, garlic, celery seed, scallions, or olives. Just know that if you do you have changed the essence of menta cheese.