Pimento Cheese? Really?!

Mabry Mill Restaurant

So what is pimento cheese anyway? That is not a question I had dwelt on until it invaded my cheeseburger search. Until then it was mostly a faint memory from my youth. Among the items usually kept in our family’s refrigerator was a plastic container filled with a creamy spread. It was light orange in color, almost like a Dreamsicle or sherbet that had fallen on hard times. Tiny red specs were mixed with small chunks of grated cheese and mayonnaise. At our house it usually wound up as the innards of a sandwich, though the adventurous would occasionally slap some on a cracker, or maybe even a piece of celery to provide a bit of taste to an otherwise bland, green, crunchy snack. In my food hierarchy pimento cheese ranked below all the meat sandwiches, but well above egg salad or tuna salad.

Years had passed since I’d thought of pimento cheese, but one day a container of it caught my eye in the supermarket so we bought one for old time’s sake. Its return to our refrigerator brought also a curiosity about the cheese’s origin. Lots of folks assume it originated in the South in the early 1900s but it seems to have been sold all across the country in groceries at that time. It was made from a soft white French cheese called Neufchâtel mixed with red peppers. It may have been to WWI what SPAM was to WWII, as it was a cheap way to feed an army. Grated cheese, mayo, and sliced pimiento peppers seem to be the main ingredients in every recipe I’ve located. Some chefs may reduce the mayo in favor of cream cheese or add a few other spices to give it their own signature flavor, but as to the question of what is pimento cheese, that was it. We made sandwiches with our supermarket purchase. They were tasty enough, triggered some enjoyable reminiscing, and that was that. Until, that is, a chance encounter last summer.

It was a hot June day on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Judi and I were providing SAG wagon support for my sister as she biked the parkway. She would take off in the mornings with a destination in mind. We’d explore sites in the area, staying nearby in case she needed us, and meet her at the endpoint at a designated time. When lunch time rolled in, Judi and I happened upon a spot called Mabry Mill. It is located in the Meadows of Dan region. According to their website, the mill itself was completed around 1908. It was the first of a few small businesses operated by Ed and Lizzie Mabry. Many of these have been preserved or reconstructed, making for a nice stop if you are in the area and need to stretch your legs. And, they have a restaurant.

One of the items promoted on the menu is the Wheel Burger. It is described as a ground beef patty topped with choice of lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise covered with house-made pimento cheese and topped with crispy bacon on a Bavarian pretzel roll. I enjoy a good pretzel roll as a variation on a standard cheeseburger bun. As you may recall, I think bacon can improve just about anything. But pimento cheese was a new twist on the cheeseburger for me, so of course, I had to try it. I’d had had it as the main ingredient of a sandwich and as a spread on finger foods, but never as the main cheese featured on a burger. I thought to myself, “Pimento cheese? Really?” Frankly, it seemed like a stretch to me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Plus, pimento cheese is made with mayonnaise, so isn’t it redundant to add mayo as a condiment to the burger? Over time I’ve learned to never criticize a cook until you’ve tried their cooking; even then, proceed with caution and if possible, wait until they are in the other room. So, I ordered the Wheel Burger.

I’d be lying if I said it was love at first bite! It was a bit like seeing your boss at the movies or the minister at the supermarket. You recognize the person, but something is out of kilter. Seeing them in a different context requires a slight adjustment on your part—like slumping down in the theater seat to avoid your boss’s gaze or putting on your most virtuous walk in case the minister meets you on Aisle 4. The first bite gave me that kind of pause, but after a second and third bite, the pimento spread and I became reacquainted and I could appreciate the flavor it brought to this dish.

I had to wonder how this cheeseburger combo came about. Maybe it’s an example of “necessity is the mother of invention” – as the burger cooked on the grill, someone who craved a cheeseburger learned the cupboard was bare except for this cheese spread, so it was this or nothing.  Or its discovery could have been a happy accident, the way Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups once advertised the introduction of peanut butter to chocolate. Someone unintentionally dropped a dollop of it on a freshly cooked burger and the rest is history. Perhaps it was mad scientist version of a Julia Childs wannabee whose culinary creativity led to an experiment that proved to be delicious. Quite possibly it was just someone who really loved pimento cheese spread who could think of nothing better than putting two good friends, hamburger and pimento cheese, together for a mealtime treat. Whatever the origin, it is here to stay, immortalized at the Mabry Mill restaurant as one feature of a historical and regional tribute.

I can only appreciate those who are bold enough to try new things and, when the results meet their approval, share them with a wider audience. Sampling the things others treasure can help us understand the person as well as broaden our horizons. It reminds me of a visit many years ago to a steak house near Raleigh, North Carolina. I was feasting on a complimentary cheese spread with crackers and clearly enjoying it. The server asked if wanted blue cheese as my salad dressing. I thought that was presumptuous of her and answered, “Heavens no! I hate blue cheese. I’ll have ranch please. By the way, the cheese in this crock is delicious. What is it and can I buy some to take home?” Her reply? “It’s blue cheese. That’s why I thought you’d want it for a salad dressing.” So, I changed my order! Somewhere I’d formed the mistaken notion that I didn’t like blue cheese. It only took one opportunity of getting to know it on its own terms to appreciate it fully. Not all changes of heart come so quickly, but lessons like those, even if slightly embarrassing in the moment, teach me the value of sampling new experiences and opportunities.

It brings to mind a favorite verse from Psalm 34: 8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” That can be read as an imperative directing us to what is eternal and true, which it does. But it also implies that experimentation is what convinces us of the goodness. There are so many positive experiences and amenities in our lives thanks to two things: someone shared their new discovery, and we eventually get around to trying it ourselves. Take swimming, for instance. Who was the first person to get into water over his or her head and figure out how to paddle without sinking? Thank goodness somebody taught me. Or think of plumbing. Whoever popularized indoor plumbing has sure made life easier, though as you might expect, for a while some insisted on clinging to their outhouses.  Not all new ideas work out, but let’s face it—if we weren’t willing to risk something different from time to time, we’d all still be on a diet of milk and baby food.

So next time you’re in the mood for a burger, try one with pimento cheese. You may discover a new favorite. Even if you don’t, at least you’ll know for sure!!

Further Reading

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