Like all good things, it was perfected in the South.
Serious Eats just took a, well, serious look at the history of pimento cheese, the South’s favorite spread (well, favorite spread that’s not mayonnaise). While it’s hard to imagine anyone appreciating the heavenly combination of shredded cheese, mayo, and diced red pimentos as much as Southerners, the delicious spread actually got its start up North—in New York, specifically. That sounds like culinary heresy for sure, but remember cream cheese came from the North, too, yet you couldn’t frost a red velvet or hummingbird cake without it and those are definitely Southern specialties.
Speaking of cream cheese, that’s actually where pimento cheese got its start. According to Serious Eats, back in the 1870s New York farmers started making a soft, unripened cheese that eventually evolved into cream cheese. Around the same time, Spain started sending canned red peppers or “pimiento” over to the United States. They soon caught on, minus the extra “i”, and became a staple of many kitchens across the country.
The two ingredients were finally brought together in 1908, in a Good Housekeeping recipe that called for cream cheese, mustard, chives, and minced pimentos. The combination of cream cheese and pimento was such a hit, it started to be mass produced, primarily in the South. Soon, Georgia farmers were trying to grow red peppers domestically, roasting them, canning them and sending out as many as 10 million cans of pimentos a year, spreading the gospel of pimento cheese around the country.
After World War II, home cooks started making their own pimento cheese, swapping cream cheese for something called “hoop cheese” and then cheddar and using a good dollop of mayonnaise to bind it all together. From there it has become a staple of church picnics and school potlucks and even shows up at some of the South’s finest restaurants.