Pimento Cheese, Please: The Southern snack with not-so-Southern beginnings

Now it’s found at every Southern party, picnic, and potluck

If you think pimento cheese is undeniably Southern—well, you’re wrong. According to expert Emily Wallace, who penned her thesis on the spread’s history, the “pâté of the South” was actually invented in New York in the early twentieth century. Its creation came about when two popular new products—canned pimentos and packaged cream cheese—were combined to produce the first incarnations of pimento cheese. Griffin, Georgia, eventually became the center of the nation’s pimento-canning industry, and pimento cheese started showing up at Southern parties, picnics, and potlucks. The savory spread’s popularity, well, spread—and the South is now known as the pimento-cheese capital of the world.

  • Recipes vary from chef to chef and from household to household, but three ingredients are constant: shredded cheese (usually cheddar), diced pimento peppers, and mayonnaise, as well as some sort of seasoning, which runs the gamut from onion powder to cayenne pepper.
  • Even though pimento cheese traces its roots to the North, the majority of it is bought and sold in the South, according to Moody Dunbar, the country’s leading pimento canner. The Carolinas boast the biggest market—no wonder it’s sometimes called “Carolina Caviar.”
  • Headquartered in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, Palmetto Cheese is the number-one cheese spread company in the country.
  • Celebrate the Southern snack on June 6 at the Pimento Cheese Festival in Cary, North Carolina. After eating your fill, try your hand at the pimento cheese–sculpting contest.
  • Pick up a pimento cheese passport at the Columbia, South Carolina, visitors center and earn stamps by ordering pimento cheese at local restaurants; collect ten stamps for the chance to win a quarterly prize. Be sure to try the Whig’s chipotle pimento cheese fries and Spotted Salamander’s pulled brisket pimento cheese sandwich.
  • You’d be hard-pressed to find a Southern restaurant that doesn’t serve pimento cheese in some form. Try a classic version served with house-made crackers at Husk’s flagship Charleston restaurant, or opt for the unusual with an order of pimento cheese beignets at Restaurant Cotton in Monroe, Louisiana.
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound magazine.