Late last summer, my friend Deb O’Connor and I were trying to decide what to order at the Phoenix Café in the Arts District of Benton Harbor, Michigan when we both noticed that one of the menu items was a grilled pimento cheese sandwich. It started us reminiscing about eating pimento cheese as youngsters, spreading it on crackers and celery sticks. And one of the best things about this bright orange cheese spread was that after it was gone, both of our families used the glass jars as juice glasses. It soon became a joke between the two of us as we pretended to vie to be the Queen of Pimento Cheese.
But pimento cheese in a jar had long ago disappeared from my list of foods that I commonly ate. The last time I’d run into it was down in Madison, Indiana, an old river port town just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. And though Madison had played a big part in the only battle of the Civil War fought in Indiana (the local telegraph operator realized that the Confederates had taken over the telegraph machine in Corydon because the key strokes sounded different), it tends to be a little Southern in its outlook.
“I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina and it’s a Southern thing,” Elizabeth Frost, owner of the Phoenix Café, told me when I mentioned that the only other place I’d seen pimento cheese served at restaurants for the last 20 years was in Southern Indiana. “I even know of someone who writing their dissertation on pimento cheese for a degree in Appalachian studies.”
And not long ago I was reminded of pimento cheese once again when Deb, who works for KitchenAid and so knows all things food, sent me a list of the top food trends and there it was again.
Phoenix Café Pimento Cheese
12 ounces each of a good white cheddar and yellow cheddar (sharp and/or extra sharp)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 cup finely diced bottled roasted red peppers
3/4 cup mayonnaise preferably homemade
Splash of bread and butter pickle juice