Photo by Chenla Ou, styled by Sarah Barton
A little mayonnaise, some cheddar, a few pimento peppers and a sprinkle of seasoning sounds simple enough, but pimento cheese is one of the most polarizing dishes to cross the Mason-Dixon. Hailing from New York but embraced by the South, it arrives in Tupperware at family gatherings, is a comfort at funerals and a celebrated centerpiece at parties. Devotees tend to herald their mom’s/uncle’s/grandmother’s/childhood deli’s recipe as the greatest; maybe memories are why this dish means so much more than a bowl of cheese. Here, a few Richmonders share their love of the spreadable stuff, and how they make theirs.
Owner of Perk! Coffee + Lunchbox
It’s a funny thing, how a Northern product can become a symbol of the South. How, Christophile Konstas wondered, did it happen? The Northern Virginia-raised filmmaker didn’t grow up with pimento cheese, and it wasn’t until adulthood that she first encountered it as she traced her way through the South for a documentary in the mid-aughts. “Everywhere we stopped there were pimento cheese sandwiches, and I was like, ‘What is this thing?’” she remembers. She teamed up with fellow Northerner — and now Richmonder — Nicole Lang to create the 2011 documentary “Pimento Cheese, Please!” to find out. Now, Konstas owns her own café serving pimento cheese made with mayonnaise, cream cheese and just a bit of pickle brine, slathering it on a sandwich named for her short film. “People will come in and have really strong opinions about it. They kind of give you this look like they’re taking you on, like it’s a duel. They have to try a spoonful of it before they order the sandwich, to be sure it meets their standards. It’s pretty intense, how people feel about it,” she says, with a laugh. “The people that come and order pimento cheese and grew up with it always have really strong opinions, so I always have a bit of pride when someone says they love my pimento cheese.”
Co-owner of Birdie’s Pimento Cheese
“When I would take my own to people’s parties, people would say, ‘Oh, well, I put a little onion in mine,’ and that’s when I realized that people are really doing things with it. That’s why we have five flavors,” says Robin “Birdie” Allen, who slings Birdie’s Pimento Cheese with her husband, Glenn, online and at farmers markets and grocers throughout Virginia. The pair serves up varieties such as garlic-Parmesan or jalapeño, though it wasn’t until Birdie was in her 40s that she began experimenting with the stuff. By the sandwich or the spoonful, one of Allen’s favorite treats came from the tub of Ruth’s Pimento Spread that her mother always kept stocked in the fridge. But in adulthood, Birdie felt store-brand pimento cheese was becoming blander, a please-all attempt that diminished flavor. She set to work adding spice, olives, gouda cheese and peppers, and in 2014 launched her company. Whether it’s the classic or another flavor, her pimento cheese has become quite the conversation starter. “People will taste ours and then they start talking about their aunt’s recipe or the way their mom would make it,” she says. “That’s one of the beautiful things we’ve experienced with having this business — we get to share everybody’s memories.”
Chef and co-owner of Pasture, Comfort, Sur Taco and the forthcoming Flora
Jason Alley can’t pinpoint the first time he tried pimento cheese because it’s been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. Instead of making it, his home in Southwest Virginia’s Dublin community was always stocked with a plastic tub from Wade’s Foods, his local grocery store. “It’s basically shredded American cheese, Miracle Whip and canned pimentos. My mom thinks I’m a psychopath. She’s like, ‘But yours is so much better!’ But, you know, it’s what I remember from being a kid.” Alley’s pimento cheese is easily the most acclaimed in Richmond, put on the menu at Pasture from day one, and filling bellies at Comfort for the last 12 years. Instead of canned or jarred pimentos, his kitchens roast red peppers in house and add grated onions, fresh herbs, hot sauce and Worcestershire, churning out around 80 to 100 pounds per week between the two restaurants. But it’s the pimento cheese from the Wade’s deli counter he craves, and its comfort runs deep. “It’s a complicated thing for me,” he says. Once, during his parents’ divorce, a young Alley was allowed to pick his packed lunch and naturally chose pimento cheese between two slices of white bread — a hug in food form. “I lost my lunch that day, and it was just the most devastating thing ever,” he remembers. “One of the teachers actually went to Wade’s and bought pimento cheese and a loaf of bread so they could make me a sandwich. It’s still a super comforting thing to me; to me it says ‘family.’ ”