Pimento cheese, anyone?
If you're from the South, it's likely your hand shot up automatically, as if compelled by a force of nature. If you're from Wisconsin ... well, your reaction might be something slightly more akin to raised eyebrows and a look of puzzlement.
But, according to North Carolina food historian Robert F. Moss, a serious aficionado of pimento cheese, Midwesterners likely harbor a forgotten familiarity with this classically Southern delicacy.
"Commercially made pimento cheese hit the market around the beginning of 1910 and was distributed to grocery stores across the country, starting in the Midwest," Moss writes. "Within a year, pimento cheese was being advertised by grocers as far west as Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque, N.M."
Moss says pimento cheese remained a national item until the 1940s, when its popularity began to fade.
The cheese is now decidedly back, with Bon Appétit naming pimento cheese one of the top food trends of 2011. If that's not enough proof for the skeptics, the cheese has been cropping up on the menus at some of New York's trendiest restaurants, in everything from scalloped potatoes to sushi.
And now, just in time to spice up holiday hors d'oeuvres or leftover turkey sandwiches, a taste of the South has migrated into the Wisconsin dairy case: Martha's Pimento Cheese.
Martha's Pimento Cheese is a fresh take on an iconic Southern staple, combining aged Wisconsin Cheddar, peppers, a dash of seasoning and a touch of mayonnaise. The cook behind the curtain is Martha Davis Kipcak, a community food organizer and regional governor of Slow Food USA.
After moving to Wisconsin from her native Texas in 1998, Martha found an abundance of delicious dairy products, but no options for pimento cheese.
"In my 56 years of eating, my family has always had pimento cheese on hand," she recalls. "I was downright stunned when I moved across the country as a middle-aged woman, to the heart of the best cheese producers in the land, and discovered that Wisconsin didn't eat pimento cheese. What? That's crazy."
Kipcak continues, "For the last 10 years, as we have experienced the high renaissance of artisan cheese and local food, I have been looking over my shoulder expecting someone to bring pimento cheese to market made with real Wisconsin aged Cheddar cheese. About a year ago, when I realized no one else was stepping up to the plate, I decided it might as well be me."
Last winter, Martha was lucky enough to be chosen as a client by the Wisconsin Dairy Business Innovation Center. This opportunity gave her access to top consultants in the dairy industry who helped her navigate branding, logo design and product development.
She founded Mighty Fine Food LLC, and in November 2012, began producing Martha's Pimento Cheese in Milwaukee. Martha's Pimento Cheese is the first product released by Mighty Fine Food LLC, a company committed to socially just, environmentally friendly and economically sustainable business practices. Whenever possible, the company sources ingredients from local producers, including small-scale sustainable farmers and urban gardeners.
"I came into Food System work through the kitchen," Kipcak explains. "As any good cook knows, you're only as good as your ingredients. In my search for quality ingredients, I connected to local agriculture. Fresh, seasonal, sustainably and responsibly grown food is hard to beat."
Packaging, production methods and facilities have also been carefully considered: containers are renewable, recyclable and compostable; Martha's Pimento Cheese is produced by hand in small batches at Clock Shadow Creamery, an innovative, green building development in Walker's Point and the first urban cheese factory in Wisconsin.
"After years of cheerleading for a strong community food system, I thought it was time for me to throw my hat in the ring and practice what I preach," Kipcak elaborates. "Is it really possible to create a successful food enterprise that holds to a triple bottom line (economically profitable, socially just, environmentally sustainable), honors foodway traditions, tastes delicious, creates good jobs and contributes to the health and wealth of my community? I think so, but I have to do it and not just talk about it."
Philosophically, Martha's Pimento Cheese sounds like a great idea. But, how does it taste?
Well, I tried it for the first time this weekend, spread on top of a black-peppered water cracker, and I found myself wondering where pimento cheese has been all of my life. The spread was nicely balanced, with the rich flavor of the cheddar cheese laying down a foundation for the sweet smokiness of delicious roasted red peppers and a hint of black pepper.
And, while the original flavor is delicious, I fell head over heels in love with the jalapeno version, which packs just enough heat to make things interesting, but not so much that you're looking for a fire extinguisher. The fact is, my husband Paul and I polished off an entire container of the spread in less than an hour. We couldn't help ourselves.
I'm pretty sure pimento cheese is going to replace the traditional tub of Merkt's at our next holiday gathering.
Looking to try pimento cheese for the first time? Here are a few suggestions for putting it to good use.
- Eat by the spoonful, straight from the refrigerator.
- Spread it on crisp, hot toast for a decidedly Wisconsin breakfast.
- Fill celery stalks with pimento cheese for a quick snack.
- Pimento cheese makes great jalapeno poppers. For a quick and easy appetizer, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Cut eight large jalapeno peppers in half and scoop out the seeds. Fill the jalapenos with pimento cheese and wrap each piece in a half strip of bacon. Secure the bacon with a toothpick and place the jalapenos on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Bake the poppers for 20-30 minutes, or until the bacon is crisp and cooked through.
- Use as a stuffing for mushroom caps.
- For a punched-up grilled cheese sandwich, spread a thick layer of pimento cheese between two slices of buttered bread. Add crisp bacon and grill to perfection.
- Spread some on your next burger or hot dog.
- Try adding it to your next batch of homemade macaroni and cheese for a peppery, almost smoky effect.
- Use as a topping for hot broccoli or cauliflower.
- When summer returns, take Martha's advice and use the cheese for a homegrown tomato and pimento cheese pie.
Martha's Pimento Cheese can be purchased in Milwaukee at Clock Shadow Creamery, Larry's Market, Glorioso's and Beans & Barley. As more retail outlets are added weekly, up-to-date information can be found online.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.