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Nicole Lang, who now lives in Richmond, ate pimento cheese for the first time about four years ago, when she found a blueprint for it while looking online for Southern recipes.
"I make it, and I love it," she says. "And the first thing I do is look at my husband, who was born in Danville, Va., and say, ‘Why didn't you tell me about this?' "
Lang admits to always having a fascination with the South.
"I was born in New York City and raised in New England, so you can't get much more Yankee than that," she says with a laugh. "And I would travel with my family to Florida when I was a girl, and we would drive through the Carolinas and Virginia. So I got exposed to bits and pieces of Southern culture, but mostly to Southern hospitality, during those trips."
Lang wondered why she had never tasted pimento cheese during those trips, and in the middle of filming, she received her answer.
"In the process of interviewing all these people, it dawned on me," Lang says. "It's because pimento cheese is inside the home. It's something that people made at home and ate at home."
Lang decided that she wanted to know more about this Southern tradition, and she researched her subject with a camera in hand. After joining the Southern Foodways Alliance, she applied for a grant to help with the filmmaking costs. Even with the grant, she needed more money, so she created a site on Kickstarter.com and raised $2,625 for her film, Pimento Cheese, Please!
"Basically what we're trying to do is find out the history of pimento cheese, if one exists," Lang says. "Trying to find out where it came from, how it came to be Southern, why when you go anywhere else in the country, people don't know what you're talking about. And what people's memories and feelings about it are."
To do this, Lang and her fellow camerawoman Christophile Konstas traveled the South talking to restaurant owners, cookbook writers and others.
"To me, Southern food is like what America brings to the world's table," Lang says. "It's really America's historical cuisine."
Among those interviewed was chef Jason Alley, owner of Richmond's Comfort and a partner in the new restaurant Pasture.
"He provides a lot of comic relief in the movie," Lang says. "He tells this one story about a traumatic childhood experience involving pimento cheese, and I have to say that's one of my favorite parts."
The filmmakers also interviewed Northerners on what they thought pimento cheese was — with some humorous results.
"I think that the funniest or the most original response from anybody has been likening it to tuna salad because it's a protein and a mayonnaise," Lang says. "And people are like, ‘So, it's a cheese salad?'"
One of the film's major scenes is a discussion by various pimento cheese makers about the ingredients they use in the spread.
"People get really, really into that stuff, and pretty soon it was clear that much like barbecue, everybody does it in a different way and is really passionate about their way," Lang says.
She found people who included cumin, capers and even bourbon in their recipes. As for Lang, she considers herself a purist. Her pimento cheese is made of orange cheese, a jar of Cento diced pimentos, Duke's mayonnaise, salt and pepper, cayenne pepper, Tabasco, a little bit of lemon juice and "absolutely no sugar ever."
The 24-minute film was finished in August and had its first showing scheduled in Oxford, Miss., in late October at the Southern Foodways Alliance's Annual Symposium. A local screening, sponsored by Richmond magazine, is planned for Nov. 9.
Meanwhile, Lang is writing for her Food Punk blog, and has also started her own company, Dollop Desserts ( dollopdesserts.com ), which sells cakes, whoopie pies and other treats. And she continues to find new ways to enjoy pimento cheese. A recent creation blends Southern and Northern traditions: miniature savory whoopie pies with pimento filling sandwiched between cornbread "cake."