Cooking for Southerners

The Hausfrau has, for many years, had a short list of things she will almost always make for parties. Guests at our cocktail parties know that we are very likely to have cocktail meatballs — those sweet/sour little things you eat with toothpicks, the kind you make with incredibly lowbrow ingredients like canned cranberry sauce or grape jelly — and pimiento cheese. Normally when I make pimiento cheese I throw everything into the food processors and generate a thick paste that’s not entirely smooth, but quite close to it. Now, I know this isn’t “authentic,” but in my book, “easy” wins over “authentic” if it saves me six minutes of hand-grating cheese and mincing roasted red peppers. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is.

But we were recently invited to a dinner party at the home of a woman who grew up in Virginia horse country and who also lived somewhere in the Carolinas for a long while. I offered, naturally, to bring something to the dinner party, and said, “Would you like me to make a dessert?” because it was my dim recollection that she is not a big baker. She wrote back quickly, saying, “Will you bring pimiento cheese?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Done and done,” I wrote back, but my brow was furrowed. I couldn’t bring Cuisinart pimiento cheese to this woman’s house! That would be heresy, or something.

So I did it all by hand. I got out my big orange-red Pyrex bowl and grated Cheddar into it, and then I minced roasted red peppers, and I scooped in some Hellmann’s mayonnaise. I suppose I could have made a special trip somewhere to find some Duke’s, but I have to draw lines somewhere. I used all my animal strength and put some raw horseradish through a garlic press to get some oomph into the mix, and added a little dry mustard. Then I mixed and mixed and mixed until the stuff looked right. “It doesn’t look right,” said my husband, peering over my shoulder. “It doesn’t look like how you usually do it. It’s not almost smooth.”

“Yeah, well, how I usually make it is wrong,” I said, “because I’m a lazy Yankee. You’re supposed to do it by hand, all the cheese grating and everything, and it’s supposed to look lumpy like this.”

“Oh,” he said, doubtfully.

We both looked into the bowl. The mixing bowl, while very pretty, was way too big for serving this dish attractively; it looked as though I’d thought I was making pimiento cheese for 20 and only came up with pimiento cheese for six. “I need to move this into a smaller container,” I said, and I grabbed another little Pyrex dish, a blue-grey rectangular tub that I bought on a whim at the English Building Market and have used more times than I can count since then. It’s funny because when I bought it, I thought, “I so don’t need this, but I cannot resist,” and it turns out to be one of the most-used serving pieces in the kitchen. I spooned the pimiento cheese into it and the tub was almost full, but it still looked a little… naked. “Needs a garnish,” I said. “What the hell do I have I can use as a garnish?”

I opened the fridge and stared into it. There was a big, big jar of green olives stuffed with pimientos. “Perfect,” I said.

I got about twenty olives out and sliced each one in half and then I began to place them around the edges of the cheese to make what I told myself was an attractive border. The thing is, no matter what you do, green olives just aren’t that attractive. They are inevitably that…. well, there’s a reason why there’s a color called olive drab. However, the deed was done. I pressed the last sliced olive into the cheese and stood back to survey the product. “Look,” I said to my husband, “It’s 1953.”

*********

We carried the tub of pimiento cheese to the dinner party and were introduced to the other guests; our daughter immediately ran off to play with our hosts’ son, whom she adores, and I held out the little tub of pimiento cheese and said, “Um, here’s your pimiento cheese.” I had never met the other guests to this party and hoped they wouldn’t be people who said, “oh, cheese? Not for me, I’m vegan.” I got lucky: both of them gushed, “Pimiento cheese?” and looked at me with great interest. It turned out that one of them grew up in Texas, where, I’m given to understand, pimiento cheese is kind of a food group. “I made this,” I said, “and I tried to be a little more authentic about it than I usually am, but — well, I hope you guys will like it.” The hostess brought out a tray of sliced baguette and some crackers and everyone dug in. “This is good,” the men told me. We addressed the possible variants involved with pimiento cheese. There was cheerful discussion of my use of horseradish versus the Texan’s mother’s use of jalapeños. “Are you from the South?” I was asked. I shook my head and explained that I am decidedly not from the South, I just have a thing about Southern cooking. By the time dinner was served and we were all seated around the table, the Auntie Mame jokes were flying thick and fast, we’d gone through three bottles of wine, and the tub of pimiento cheese was empty.

I’ll be making more today. We’re having brisket for dinner, and I have this idea that I should make biscuits and a green pea salad to serve on the side. Pimiento cheese would go very well with that,  I think, and it serves the Rule of Four (cf. Lee Bailey and Nora Ephron). In the meantime: better buy more peppers.

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