Pimento-cracy

By Cynthia R. Greenlee

March 23, 2021

Illustration by Carter/Reddy

Not to anthropomorphize food, but pimento cheese crosses boundaries promiscuously. 

Consider its Southern stamping grounds and also its presence across the continent, in a barebones garage apartment in the invented seaside town of Santa Teresa, California. There, private investigator Kinsey Millhone chases runaway wives, shysters, murderers, and disappearing corpses—all the while subsisting on a consistent diet of sarcasm and sandwiches. 

The eternally thirtysomething gumshoe of author Sue Grafton’s popular alphabet mysteries has exactly one good dress, two ex-husbands, and a handful of favorite sandwiches. 

Hard-boiled egg slathered with mayo, heavy on the salt. The faintly Elvisonian peanut butter and pickles. And olive and pimento cheese—the culinary lovechild of the cocktail olive and the South’s orange pâté of cheddar cheese, mayo and/or cream cheese, and the eponymous sweet pepper (not to be confused with the pimiento of Caribbean allspice fame). 

Somehow, inexplicably, Kinsey maintains a hard exterior, a trim waistline, and an indigestion-impervious gut. As Bill Phillips, a scholar of crime fiction, once wrote: “Indeed, Kinsey Millhone would probably have died of malnutrition halfway through the alphabet if it were not for her neighbour, Henry, a retired baker, who regularly supplies her with decent home-cooked meals.” If cholesterol, high blood pressure, or a sociopath didn’t take her out first. 

I blinked the first time I read a Kinsey Millhone pimento cheese reference. I can’t tell you which novel it was except that it was early in the procession of Grafton’s twenty-five Kinsey novels, starting with 1982’s ‘A’ Is for Alibi, topping the New York Times bestseller list with ‘L’ Is for Lawless, and ending with 2017’s ‘Y’ Is for Yesterday. Grafton died before finishing the twenty-sixth and ultimate installment, leaving fans bereftly speculating about the Z-word-coda that never came, the series’ unsolvable X variable.  

What could this West Coast character know of pimento cheese? I snorted. The next passage confirmed my bias and hurt my heart. Kinsey may have been the grande dame of Generation X’s modern female sleuths and a welcome alternative to her male contemporaries, including the slackerish, Ferrari-driving Magnum P.I. of 1980s television. (I had relished her fictitious, fantastical badassery enough to buy a demi-alphabet’s worth of paperbacks over the span of a decade.) But then she scraped pimento cheese out of a Kraft jar, not the flat plastic tub of my North Carolina Piedmont or a mixing bowl. I dismissed her enjoyment as the pleasure of the truly uninitiated. Surely, its inclusion in the mysteries was just one of many ways that Grafton—who was well versed in the Way of Pimento Cheese from her Louisville upbringing—invested her heroine with details of her own life, like the powder blue 1974 Volkswagen Beetle that Grafton and Kinsey each drove. 

 

I mulled the mysteries within the mystery. First, the question of pimento cheese’s westward migration, and then, why pimento cheese had made cameos in whodunits beyond Grafton’s. I had blown through many “cozies”—tame mysteries that eschew the hard edge and onstage violence of police procedurals. Caterers, bibliophiles, golf lovers, spinster Egyptologists, and dead aunties whose nosiness extends into the afterlife: all of them sleuths in regular-people clothing. And quite a few cozies, some of which included recipes, had served up pimento cheese inside agreeable tales of murder, milquetoast crimes, and nonviolent intrigue in a village near you. 

I didn’t get very far in considering these dual enigmas, so I called illustrator and writer Emily Wallace, who kindly and promptly disabused me of my sectionalist haughtiness over Kinsey’s California pimento cheese. After living in the Midwest, the North Carolina native had returned to Chapel Hill in the double-aughts for graduate study in folklore. 

“I was buying all these tubs of pimento cheese that I wasn’t able to get in Chicago . .  .

It just kinda dawned on me that my mom had them in her fridge our whole life. And I knew nothing about them, what the story behind them [was],” she said. That desire to know turned into a thesis on pimento cheese’s working-class past. 

That past doesn’t wholly belong to the South. Foods and trade respect few geopolitical boundaries—the lines of belonging we draw around ourselves, territory, and institutions. Not that I expect the region’s diehard pimento cheese boosters to know or acknowledge the global origins of our “indigenous” fluorescent cheese food. We cling to our myths and our mayonnaises. 

Despite the injunctions of modern eat-local movements, the earliest pimento cheese seems to have been made with Neufchatel soft cheese, a French innovation that got an upgrade in New York, catalyzing the advent of cream cheese. The pimentos themselves may have crossed the Atlantic thrice, first as part of the Columbian Exchange, as Christopher
Columbus is believed to have taken them back to Spain from the Americas. They then returned stateside as imports in the late nineteenth century, and the crop got a boost later when a Georgia farmer used his Congressional connections to get valuable seeds from abroad.

This was perhaps the first act in pimento cheese’s characteristic shapeshifting. 

“The first peppers were imported and started out as more of a delicacy. You’d see them at fine grocers,” said Wallace. They found their way into early cookbooks or women’s pages, paired with watercress, celery logs, chopped liver. And they figured prominently in early twentieth-century canned-good, composed-salad monstrosities: One 1934 pimento-industry pamphlet recommended “Salad Melba” (chicory, canned pears, and pimento cheese balls); the “Salad Ardent” with lemon, grapefruit, sweet Bermuda onions, lettuce, precisely six peppers, and pimento-enhanced French dressing; and the peanut butter–pimento sandwich. 

Second act: California and Georgia vied for top pimento-producing honors for years. As Wallace told me, “You had peppers on the West Coast and also in Georgia. The states went back and forth competing, but pimentos were really celebrated in Georgia. These little towns [like Woodbury] that grew the peppers there had pageants and festivals that had pimento queens.” 

A U.S. Labor Department report noted that California had, as late as the 1920s, carried out more than half of production, but by 1931, Georgia had nearly toppled the Golden State from its processing pedestal. The siren call of the South’s oppressively low pay shifted that dynamic; pickers plucked peppers for pittances and tossed them in sacks like cotton, and Georgia’s canning workers earned 20 cents an hour to the California plant laborer’s 38. (The pimento couldn’t remove all barriers. Many of those workers were Black women and men. Archival photographs of the Pomona plant in Griffin, Georgia, show Black women seated on the assembly line, with a white man looming over them with a distinctly unfriendly look.) 

When South Carolina surpassed Georgia in East Coast peach production—and its governor snidely suggested that Georgia remove “Peach State” from its license plates—dean of the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Paul Chapman opined in 1949 that “the Empire State of the South might appropriately substitute the words, ‘Pimento State.’”

Griffin—a small town in west-central Georgia—and the Georgia Experiment Station horticulturalist incubator based there led the way, before the industry began shifting back to California. Its experts had developed hardier, disease-resistant varietals and novelties such as a bramble-less blackberry. “If they can de-thorn the blackberry,” enthused an Atlanta Constitution writer in 1968, “they can do anything,” including breeding a smaller pimento plant that yielded a bounty of cherry-sized peppers to produce the “scarlet scraps.” 

A convergence of cheap labor and economic need fueled the drive for innovation. When pests, climatic catastrophe, and volatile markets besieged cotton producers, Georgia boosters believed the humble pimento might become the next King Commodity. The future and fortunes of the pimento were already intertwined with the South’s cash crops. Pomona Products Company, probably the world’s largest pimento producer in the mid-1920s, operated alongside eight cotton mills and three hosiery and knitting mills in Griffin on a street once named Pimento Avenue. It packaged pickled peaches right up until pimento season began in the dog days of early August. 

It follows naturally, if indirectly, that millworkers would not forever be alienated from what they produced. With the mass production of block cheese and the coming of refrigeration, pimento cheese became a fixture in the palate populi and working-class lunch sacks. Women often peddled sandwiches with the spread at mills, parlaying that into bigger businesses, while Southern mayonnaise companies cranked out plastic tub after tub. As Wallace (whose family members labored in North Carolina mills) explains it, “Pimento cheese has kept its foot in both worlds. I can’t think of a lot of other foods,” excluding fried chicken, that move so seamlessly and successfully across class lines. 

Pimento cheese’s history is one of migration and a food’s class-switching. It’s the chronicle of two crackers: the elite’s fancy wafers and the hardscrabble white workers who ate it on white bread when the break whistle blew. A once-imported ingredient became a star in a dish embraced by the Southern proletariat. 

I had imagined only an uncomplicated one-way gentrification of the cheese food. In that myth, it transitioned from the workaday lunch pail to the Masters golf tourney menu and restaurants frequented by white ladies who lunch with white men who wear seersucker unironically. But truth be told: The pimento part of the equation was a matter of reverse gentrification from tony import to American fields and mills. The hankering for an exclusive ingredient created a new labor market and a broader appetite. 

Pimento cheese’s rise is late capitalism served on Wonder Bread—globalization, movement of commodities, elite adoption, commercialization, its democratizing  co-optation by the laboring and middling classes, the growth of corporate agriculture, wage stagnation. Pimento production became increasingly mechanized and subject to regulation (pasteurized pimento cheese is listed in the Food and Drug Administration’s Code of Federal Regulations). And then, there was the recent gentrification. Food pundits such as Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport (before being toppled from the post in 2020 for wearing brownface) pronounced in 2011 that pimento cheese would reach a new height in its popularity—decades after Southern and Western producers ramped up their pimento cultivation and women hawked those orange-and-white sandwiches at mills. 

But if I had to let go of my Carolina-bred pretensions and proprietariness, the California-meets-the-South connection in Kinsey Millhone novels was at least partly solved. 

Pimento cheese’s history is one of migration and a food’s class-switching.

I often wonder what inspires people to combine ingredients into dishes: fortuitousness, the spirit of exploration, hunger pangs, and empty larders that demand you make something out of that old bread or sour milk. We’ll never know what inspired some pimento cheese ur-ancestor to mix cheese, peppers, mayo, and the world in a bowl. Why someone layered it between two slices of bread, or why people like me prefer it on sesame crackers or as a sumptuous burger condiment-that’s-more-embellishment-than-condiment. 

And I can only ruminate on pimento cheese’s literary appearances in the genre novel, why Kinsey Millhone spreads it on her sandwiches, why it appears in culinary mysteries that describe homicide via food allergies or exploding chocolate lava cakes. 

For the mystery writer, pimento cheese can be a throwaway mention. But it often signifies as much as it sustains. Kinsey Millhone, the ex-cop turned freelance investigator, may seem the picture of female frondeur, but she turns to the cheese in unsettled moods. Pimento cheese is her dis-comfort food. 

She repeatedly makes her version of tea sandwiches, cut in neat triangles. She cuts them as her mother cut them, one of the few memories Kinsey has of her long-deceased parents. In 1988’s ‘E’ Is for Evidence, Kinsey reports on a dinner of olive–pimento cheese sandwiches on whole-wheat bread: “the brand of pimento cheese I buy has tasted the same since the first time I remember eating it at the age of three and a half. Resolutely I veered off that subject, since it connects to my parents, who were killed [in a car accident] when I was five.” She pairs the sandwich with white wine, settles on the couch, and waits for sleep to overtake her. 

While the sandwich signals Kinsey’s state of mind—and the fact that the “old-maid” aunt who took her in taught her to carry a gun, but not how to cook (or emote healthily)—pimento cheese tends to serve as both backdrop and shorthand for Southern identity in other mysteries. And that shorthand is ever more critical to the low-suspense cozy, where the reader can only juggle so many questions. Some things need to be easy and self-evident, stereotypical even. We know exactly what kind of woman Miss Haseltine Polk, a country nurse in Nancy Pauline Simpson’s mystery story “Festered Wounds,” is when she shows up to a picnic wearing a cape. And we know even better when she sets out a meal of “pimento cheese sandwiches on bread thin and translucent as magnolia petals,” pickled tomatoes, boiled peanuts, pound cake topped with fig preserves, and a ham hock for Gumbo the English bulldog. 

Anne George’s Southern Sisters mysteries introduced Patricia Anne and Mary Alice, two Alabama sisters who are as different as the no-fat-eating Jack Sprat and his no-lean-eating, no-name wife. In 1999’s Murder Shoots the Bull, impulsive Mary Alice clocks a local Chamber of Commerce-type over the head with an umbrella—which lands the pair in local lockup (they plan to send their niece their own letter from Birmingham jail). Retired schoolteacher Patricia Anne does what she does most of the time: observes and proffers chatty play-by-plays about her sister’s antics. “Mary Alice also used to be five years older than I am, but she’s started backing up. This day in the Birmingham jail, she was Beach Blonde and I was more gray than strawberry. But I still had more sense.”

While waiting for Patricia Anne’s husband to spring them, Mary Alice yearns for a Chick-fil-A sandwich. And so the stories go. Action unfolds against a sea of relentless Southernisms and shibboleths: the liberal use of y’all, siblings who often refer to each other as “Sister” rather than their Christian names, characters sporting double first names, dogs who get bitten by possums, and the parade of beloved food references and behaviors. The sexagenarian sisters chuckle over a friend who’s transitioning to the ridiculous practice of vegetarianism but spends his last carnivorous days at Burger King. They buy the occasional bunch of asparagus at the local Piggly Wiggly. Mary Alice and Patricia Anne hand each other sweating tumblers of iced tea and consider investing in Coca-Cola. 

When Patricia Anne needs to think hard about a murder—and how to get a good friend’s maybe-philandering husband off the hook—she fixes a pimento cheese sandwich. The simple meal, almost an afterthought, reinforces her identity as a Southern sleuth of the domestic order, not a hardboiled investigator. As Patricia Anne ponders who-got-it and who-dun-it, the pimento cheese sandwich is a low-labor, protein-rich lunch that allows her to do the cerebral work of puzzling through clues. This is cheese dip as powerful ratiocination aid. 

I may be reading too much into this one mystery mention of a sandwich made from the humble-yet-haute spread. Perhaps a sandwich is just a sandwich, a snack just a snack. 

But it’s not just one mention—to wit, Karen Rose Smith’s Murder with Cucumber Sandwiches includes a pimento cheese recipe with cucumber and sun-dried tomatoes (a spread that characters pair with pumpernickel bread and cauliflower soup)—and it’s no small thing.  

And though Smith’s book is based in a Pennsylvania tea garden, many mysteries reflect and reify the stances of the orange pâté’s Bible Belt partisans. Those aficionados who go on about how much mayo, what brand, whether cream cheese is a heretical ingredient, whether raw onion is de rigueur, whether bell pepper will do, whether a splash of Worcestershire sauce amounts to umami or vile apostasy. 

Pimento purity tests work themselves into the internal dialogue of innkeeper Beth McKenzie in the imaginary hamlet of Littleboro, North Carolina. Catering for a “trashion” show in Ruth Moose’s 2016 Wedding Bell Blues, she clothes organic turnips in bacon and constructs raw okra pinwheels. Then she thinks how an ancestor would cringe at her abuse of pimento cheese. “I mixed up a pimento cheese dip that I’d serve warm though my grandmother was rolling in her grave. Warm pimento cheese”—italics hers. 

Beth is a disciple of the more laidback “have-it-your-way” approach, but she is fully aware that the kinfolk cheese dip orthodox would disapprove. In her world, according to your recipe’s composition and flavor, pimento cheese zealots will mark you as one of four things: one of “us,” a naturalized citizen to this Republic of Delightful Delicacy (to be tolerated but conditionally trusted), a culinary carpetbagger, or irredeemable exile. 

Fictional Key West food critic Hayley Snow falls into that second category. When she’s not dodging restaurateurs whose eateries she’s reviewed semi-negatively, she’s consuming everything from soppressata to sesame. In Fatal Reservations, in which she clears a tarot-card-reading friend of murder, she tucks into—and exults in—a meal of canonical Southern dishes. 

“My eye caught on pimento cheese with spiced saltine crackers and a plate of fried green tomatoes. Was it too early in the day for pimento cheese? My mouth watered at the prospect, which I interpreted as a definitive no.” Pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes identify Hayley as a New Jersey snowbird who’s so adapted that she’ll enjoy them anywhere, anytime outside the customary lunch hour. 

Author and clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib, who writes the Hayley Snow culinary mysteries under the pen name Lucy Burdette, said pimento cheese shows up in her books when “I’m either making it for myself or company. Or because the character needs to make it, or she makes it because I’m eating it.” Isleib professes pimento cheese snobbery: Her go-to recipe contains a healthy helping of cream cheese, anathema to the only-mayo camp. Mayo opinion and rivalries aside, “it’s all about the ingredients and the texture,” she said, opting for a good-quality cheddar and a chunky blend rather than the thinner, pliable sandwich spread. 

She was bemused by my early Sunday morning email asking why Hayley partakes of pimento cheese, chuckling at my attempt to count her and Hayley’s pimento cheese moments. She wrote them, but even she can’t provide a reliable count across the series’ eleven books. Not all are easily searchable—but the word pimento is in at least three of her mysteries. 

Little surprises Wallace, who noted seeing pimento cheese as marquee ingredients in both Costco sushi and a Denver restaurant’s cheesecake. The phone line grew silent as we marveled—and not in a good way—at these innovations. After a pause, she said, “I was just, like, ‘Whoa, everything’s going off the rails.’” It seems we too are pimento purists.

Cynthia R. Greenlee

Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a historian, a writer, and senior editor at The Counter, a publication about the politics, business, and culture of food. She is a winner of a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award in food writing and co-editor of The Echoing Ida Collection. She’s also a double-duty Carolinian (both North and South). See more of her work at cynthiagreenlee.com.