A La Recherché du Cheese Perdu
Pimento Cheese sandwiches are the petite Madeleines of my childhood. My mother is a splendid Southern cook who taught herself "from scratch." The first time she made chocolate chip cookies as a girl, she proudly mixed the sticky batter and then deposited a thick mound of chocolate-studded dough onto a cookie sheet. She watched through her General Electric oven's glass window and waited patiently for the little mountain of dough to separate into two dozen perfect cookies.
When my mother married — after an exciting stint as a World War II telegrapher on the Wabash Cannonball railroad — she followed her brand new Betty Crocker cookbook with some inventions of her own.
"I was determined to fatten your father up," mother tells the story. "After all, that was my job back in those days. That, and having you kids."
She took to her recipe books with the same zeal with which she had aced Morse code — a language she remembers to this day. By the time I, her firstborn conceived on the honeymoon, was eating real food, my mother's counter boasted a handy metal file of index cards with recipes begged, borrowed, never stolen. Her archives were a gold mine coveted by other cooks. The colorful little tabs were labeled with complimentary dishes:
East Indian Chicken and curried sweet potatoes
Sausage cookies and sweet pickle ChowChow
Barbecued butter beans and hot, wilted lettuce
Peanut-butter fruitcake, cherry and pineapple fudge
Divinity spiked with black walnuts.
These specialty nuts Mother bought from a black market of housewives in Georgia. She would clandestinely receive a burlap sack of these smoky, almost bitter nuts. Their shells were so hard she flopped the bag on our driveway and ran over them with the family station wagon to crack them open.
Since we lived my early years on a U.S. Forest Service station in the High Sierra, surrounded by more wild animals than possible dinner guests, my mother experimented with the game my forester father brought home. The lean, sweet meat of the majestic moose was "mooseghetti" with a spicy marina; venison was ground into lean burgers; and elk was our weekly pot roast garnished with dill potatoes.
Growing up on game as my own body flexed its muscles and stretched its bones, left me forever unable to become a vegetarian. Every time I try to go from carnivore to gentle grazer, I succumb to the family heritage: anemia.
That's where cheese comes in. It is my protein of choice. And because of cheese I can survive on just a few helpings of meat a week. Cheese is my one vice. I have no sweet tooth; and, coming from generations of tea-totallers, I cannot process alcohol. I had to give up caffeine in 1986 when I became "allergic to my own adrenalin," as the doctor marveled. So, of necessity, I am moderate in most all things. The only time I ever understand addictions is when it comes to cheese. Gotta have it!
When I lived in New York City I stood in line for so long awaiting my special dill havarti that I fainted. But the crush of the crowd held me upright.
"Diabetic?" a kindly shopper asked me. "Need orange juice?"
"No," I managed to revive. "Cheese … smoked gouda, please."
The recent boom in specialty cheese counters at such "foodie" hang-outs as Whole Foods and even now local farmers' markets, boggle my mind. As I cruise through, I sample tempting cheese bits with a pleasure that is part connoisseur, part junkie.
Here in the Pacific Northwest where I've lived for over two decades, there are celebrated creameries whose cheeses draw coven-like converts. I call their hand-crafted cheeses by name like a mantra: Rogue River Blue, Mt. Townsend "Sea Stack" and Cowgirl Creamery's Devil's Gulch with its spicy, dried red pepper flake rind.
But one shopping trip I dared to ask a sacrilegious question of our Cheese Master at the urban temple of our high-end food market.
"Say, do you ever carry Pimento Cheese spread?"
"What?" the Cheese Master snapped. "A spread?" He shook his head as if I had proposed something obscene. But wasn't peppery cheese a perfectly respectable combination?
"My mother makes it," I said. "It's got a kick … a little spicy and …. "
"Never heard of it!" The Master dismissed me and turned to an elegant shopper in line behind me. His world was righted when she ordered a Camembert.
I was familiar with this Master and had always enjoyed his Beardesque generosity in helping me adventure through the rich territory of my favorite food. I never expected he would be such a cheese snob.
James Beard, you are not! I wanted to tell the Master; but instead I plucked up a respectably aged Irish cheddar. Then I skulked around the supermarket like a heretic to find roasted pimentos in a jar. As I stood before colorful jars of Italian roasted pimentos, I straightened my shoulders and stood tall.
There was nothing wrong with wanting a food that summons up all that was most wonderful about my childhood. Proust never apologized for dipping those rather pedestrian butter cookies into his tea and opening a time-traveling portal.
Why not me? And why not with Pimento Cheese? Why had this blessing from my childhood cuisine disappeared? Why had it not conquered and captured the imagination of the American table?
Right there in the super market, I called my mother on my cell.
"Are there any top-secret ingredients to your Pimento Cheese?" I asked her.
My mother worked for 17 years at the C.I.A. I don't know what she did, except she had a top security clearance and worked in a vault that locked at night. Every Christmas she still gives us C.I.A. memorabilia, like travel mugs, t-shifts, and little silver boxes that open into a pen and calculator set — if one can figure out the puzzle.
"There are a few secrets to pimento cheese," mother said. "And use the very best cheddar you can find."
"Then find fire-roasted pimentos. I make my own special dressing: Heat two tablespoons of flour, and two egg yolks in a saucepan until bubbly. Add a little vinegar, salt, red pepper, and of course, dry mustard — that really gives it some pizzazz! Stir in ¾ cup milk and some butter, heat on low. And here's the secret — add two tablespoons of sugar," she laughed. "Remember, your grandmother always said that everything goes better — even vegetables — with just a bit of sugar."
I knew this last ingredient would make the Cheese Master wince. But happily I zipped around the market gathering all I needed. And to add to my mother's recipe I found a fabulous one in The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. They write: "There's not a big tradition of hors d'oeuvre in the South," famous for its "dry" counties. "Drinks before dinner — and anytime — are considered a scandal … 'pimento cheese' on a cracker or with celery sticks is a terrific cocktail nibble."
Of course, these experts advise making one's own mayonnaise. Well, that's not in my league or in this lifetime.
I am culinary-impaired. Always anxious in the kitchen, I stock my oven with organic kibbles for my two cats, blue corn chips, and peanut butter pretzels to slake my salt tooth. My microwave doubles as a breadbox. Though my fridge's cheese keeper is full of stiltons, blues, and brie, the other shelves are scantily stocked: take-out Thai, cold cuts, organic veggies, Russian borscht and piroshkies from my friend, Dianochka. She is an inspired chef who cooks for her family and brings me delicacies every Tuesday night after singing. She has helped me understand food as more than fuel for a pit stop between computers.
Then there was my first editor, the legendary cuisine guru, Judith Jones, who discovered Julia Child and James Beard. Judith's own bestselling book The Pleasures of Cooking for One has an entire chapter devoted to "The Seduction of Cheese." Unlike my Southern style of eating Pimento Cheese as prelude to any meal, Judith ends her meal with cheese each night when she dines alone.
Girded by all these culinary guides, I decided to attempt to make my own pimento cheese. Yes, it's like playing chopsticks on the piano. But maybe if I can sing, I can also do two-fingered cooking.
In The Gift of Southern Cooking by Miss Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, two of Judith's famed chefs, I found a Pimento Cheese recipe; it is also posted online at The Amateur Gourmet. Shooing my cats off the counter, I grated the Irish cheddar, but with some effort. Judith recommends a carpenter's rasp for grating cheese. Then I folded in the mayonnaise, seasoned with salt, cayenne, and black pepper. I reverently spread the Pimento Cheese on artisan bread, a fresh baguette from our world-famous neighborhood Bakery Nouveau. I garnished it with sweet, chunky Persian cucumbers and pickled asparagus from our Sunday farmer's market. Then I enjoyed smoked salmon chowder from our local Pike Place Chowder. Voila!
So as they say in the South — I was lost … but now? The spicy, sharp and creamy aroma of cheddar harmonizing with the peppery tang of pimentos. A la recheche du temps perdu. Cheese as the voluptuous communion, the body as soul.
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