It was 1976. My hair was below my waist. I sported teardrop-shaped wire frame glasses. My favorite outfit was a pair of flowered bell-bottoms and a T-shirt that read, “I am delicious.” Painful, I know. You ought to see the pictures.
My family had just moved to Georgia. The nation was celebrating the bicentennial. We were a few months shy of the election of one of Georgia’s own sons, James Earl Carter, Jr., as president of the United States. I was twelve – buck toothed, bewildered, and blissfully unaware of how suggestive my favorite shirt actually was. As the child of a northern father and a German mother (apparently also blissfully unaware), I was about to get a crash course in the ways of the only region of the continental United States we had yet to inhabit – the American Southland.
My story (and, yes, it is a tale of food) begins at C.T. Walker Elementary School in Augusta. Nearly every day of the week, my teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Darlington, brought a softball-sized ruby red fruit to school and placed it on the corner of her imposing wooden desk. I stole glances at the exotic globe and tried to figure out what it was by ruling out what it wasn’t. Not a grapefruit. Not a blood orange. Not an unusually large Red Delicious apple. Finally, I tentatively inquired, and Mrs. Darlington introduced me to (cue the choir of angels) punica granatum – hand-picked from a tree in her yard.
It didn’t take long for me to succumb to the siren song of the succulent pomegranate. That afternoon, I sat on our porch savoring every single seed – my fingertips and lips stained pink with antioxidant rich juice. Perhaps if I had known that pomegranate was so good for me I wouldn’t have slipped into the rapture. But that was before anyone talked about antioxidants and free radicals so the pomegranate promptly replaced watermelon-flavored Now and Laters as my fruit of choice.
Ah, if I could have had such an abbreviated courtship with other southern delicacies; but, no, I danced much longer with boiled peanuts, with collards and cornbread, with grits. I first made the acquaintance of a grit when I was seven, living in military housing in Germany. My best friend’s mother (she was from Alabama, speaking of foreign countries) made them for breakfast when I spent the night. I regarded them as a repulsive form of gruel and usually returned home, relieved, to my own mother’s sizzling pan of hash browns. It wasn’t until two decades later that I ate a bowl of hot cheese grits and hastily bestowed upon them most favored ration status. To borrow from the advertising repertoire of the American Dairy Association … behold the power of cheese.
That’s why my early reservations over the simple southern classic, pimento cheese, remain a source of wonder to me. Cheese makes everything better, yes? Cheese grits. Cheeseburgers. Cheese fries. So why then was I so troubled by the idea of pimento cheese? Maybe it was the abundance of mayonnaise. Maybe it was that dreadful sucking sound the spoon makes when you pull it out of all that orange moistness. Maybe it was the fact that my first bite of pimento cheese came out of a plastic container with the name Ruth emblazoned on the side.
Please, if you happen to love Ruth’s Pimento Cheese, don’t send me hate mail or impassioned pleas for me to give it another try. I know Ruth has her groupies, but I simply can’t abide by her concoction. And, apparently, I’m not the only one. Reynolds Price, that scion of southern culture, has described the prepared varieties of pimento cheese available in supermarkets as “congealed insecticides.” Send him your epistles. My PO box is full of tsk-tsks regarding my treatment of Mrs. S.R. Dull, author of the 1928 classic, Southern Cooking. But more on that in a future dispatch.
Now where were we…? Ah, yes, that first bite of Ruth’s. My mind (and my mouth) remained closed for more than 20 years until an old friend who has worked hole 16 at the Augusta National for more than three decades convinced me to try the course’s much ballyhooed pimento cheese sandwich at the Master’s Golf Tournament in 1997. I handed her my dollar (yes, one dollar – although these days it goes for a bit more), found a quiet spot away from all the action, and opened my mouth (and my mind) to pimento cheese – done right.
Not too moist. Not too dry. Spread perfectly between two pieces of soft white bread. I finally got it. In fact, I got it twice. My friend greeted me with an “I told you so” grin as I approached with another dollar in my hand. At less than the cost of a tube of ChapStick, the Augusta National’s sandwich is the best bargain in big league sports concessions. Need a point of reference? How about seven dollar French fries and twelve buck chicken and cheese sandwiches at this year’s Super Bowl? But more than being easy on the wallet, the National’s pimento cheese sandwich – much like the Green Jacket itself – is an icon. Not since the mint julep of Churchill Downs has an ingestible item been so entwined with the identity of an event. Even the Almighty Wikipedia identifies the sandwich as the “signature item” of the golf tunamint, as they say ‘round these parts.
Long a southern classic, the mystery of pimento cheese lies in its simplicity. The basic recipe calls for a triumvirate of ingredients: Cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and those perky pimentos – the same dash of red you find filling the bellies of prepared Spanish green olives. But as John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has said – pimento cheese “transcends its basic ingredients and becomes something grander.” And like all classics, pimento cheese has been “interpreted” by modern cooks. I’ve seen Parmesan pimento cheese, blue pimento cheese, feta pimento cheese dip with chipotle sauce, triple cream brie pimento cheese – clearly, not your memaw’s cheese spread. My favorite variation is made with aged white and yellow cheddar, Duke’s mayonnaise, and jalapeno peppers. The sharper and hotter the better. The Junior League of Augusta’s Zesty Pimento Cheese – well, that ain’t bad either.
As I enter my 34th year as a resident of the southern United States, I’m both amazed and amused that I’m still not considered a southerner by people whose family trees have deep roots in red Georgia clay. What did someone tell me once? If a cat had kittens in the oven, you wouldn’t call ‘em biscuits, would you? I had to think about that one, too.
Despite living 77.3% of my life in Georgia, despite eschewing “you guys” in favor of “y’all”, and despite embracing the pomegranate, the grit, and pimento cheese, I’m still “not from around here.” But even in the face of this curious distinction, I continue to fly the flag of southern foodways. No, I don’t have an Aunt Ethelene who won five blue ribbons at the county fair for her mayhaw pie. My Aunt Diane runs the register at a market near the New Jersey shore. And I don’t have an Uncle Elbert who was celebrated throughout Hancock County for his skillet cornbread. No, my Onkel Gerhard tends his honeybees in his garden in Duisburg, Germany. And my grandmothers’ maiden names? You won’t find Gerbig and Tausek on any Augusta street signs.
While I don’t have the requisite roots, what I do have is an immigrant’s passion for her adopted land. And so I’ll continue to celebrate okra and oxtails, greens and gumbo, scuppernongs and squirrel stew. Y’all keep worryin’ over what makes a southerner a southerner; I’ll just be over here enjoying this batch of pimento cheese.