Ever fall down an Internet rabbit hole? Stupid question, of course, you have. None of us are immune to the easy charms of Google. You innocently Google one thing and that leads to another thing and suddenly it’s 2:30 am, you really have to pee, and your leg is asleep. Most of us are guilty of falling down a black hole of celebrity intrigue, nostalgia-driven YouTube hopping and/or intentionally fruitless online “shopping”. But I’m willing to wager that few have spent the better part of a day Googling a cheese sauce. This is something I did in real life and am now admitting to on the Internets. And while I’ll admit the nerdiness is, well, embarrassing, it did lead to this Pimento Cheese Tuna Melt. So, there’s that.
Full disclosure: I did not grow up eating pimento cheese. I first encountered “Southern pate” at a modern diner in Toronto. It was given the rarebit treatment and served with a fried egg. Traditionally, the cheddar, mayo, pimento concoction is sandwiched between two slices of white bread. While I may not be from Texas or Georgia or any of the states that recognize pimento cheese as a point of pride and a touchstone of nostalgia, I was an instant fan. So much so that I wanted to know what on earth this magical substance was all about.
My pimento cheese odyssey started out innocently enough. I just wanted to know what was in it. And, I must admit, when I found out I shuddered. As a relatively health-conscious individual, the thought of putting mayo, cream cheese, and shredded cheese into a single bowl gave me pause. But then I thought, who am I to pass judgment now? I lapped the stuff up when I didn’t know what was in it. This was the moment when this Pimento Cheese Tuna Melt started to take shape. I knew it did well in rarebit form, so it had to do well as a melt.
With my initial question answered and a dream sandwich firmly in mind, I should’ve walked away. But instead of tottling off to the kitchen, I started to wonder how on earth all those ingredients ever wound up in the same bowl. So, I started Googling the origins of pimento cheese fully expecting to wind up in some nice lady’s turn-of-the-century kitchen somewhere in the deep South. Instead, I found a bizarre origin story that started in New York of all places. How could I not continue to Google? Wouldn’t you Google? You would Google!
Now, before I lose my head over the convoluted past of pimento cheese, I should say that bizarre journeys are common in food history. The fact of the matter is people do not create detailed accounts of the things they consider everyday and routine. But, tragically, these “boring” dishes and objects often provide the most insight and tangible connection to the daily lives of those who came before us. This is probably why everyone I know made and buried a time capsule at some point in grade school.
But enough about that, let’s talk pimento cheese. Pimento cheese in its rawest form came into being around 1887, when sweet peppers, imported from Spain, arrived in the Northern United States. A decade earlier, cream cheese began its take over of New York. Originally a derivative of a French cheese called Neufchatel, cream cheese was gathering in popularity partly due to its early foray into an increasingly mechanized food industry.
Cream cheese also had the healthy support of women involved in “domestic science.” The movement sought to bring order and “scientific precision” to the management of a home. Cream cheese, a food manufacturing triumph, was just the thing for modern, “scientifically-minded” women. Naturally, adding a worldly ingredient to an advanced domestic ingredient would only further solidify a woman’s good taste and modernity. So, the imported pimentos and cream cheese found themselves stuffed into the same radish.
By the 1920s, pimento cheese had gathered so much speed that states like Georgia and California began growing and canning the sweet Spanish peppers in order to feed demand. In 1938, it was estimated that over 25,000 acres of land were devoted to the peppers. This is not what transformed the cheese into a Southern icon. Pimento cheese was called for in numerous recipes in publications across the United States between 1920 and 1940 suggesting it was a nationwide craze. But after World War II, Americans in Northern states seemed to lose their taste for the cheese. The South, however, did not.
Not only did the South not lose their taste for pimento cheese, but it also seems they had been quietly perfecting it all along. Many prominent Southern writers detailed the homemade versions of the cheese they had eaten growing up, particularly during the Depression. It would stand to reason that when times got tough and you had a surplus of peppers and cheap hoop cheese at your disposal, why wouldn’t you combine them to make something resembling the fancy store-bought stuff. Most of the pimento cheeses coming out of Depression-era kitchens featured ingredients, like homemade mayonnaise and blistered peppers. Packaged ingredients were expensive, so a lot of items were cheaper to make. But very few of these recipes were ever recorded.
For the remaining years of the 20th century, the pimento cheese of Southern kitchens remained a ubiquitous but unheralded spread. Some equate it to peanut butter in terms of its availability and popularity. But in the last few decades, pimento cheese has been getting its due. Prior to 1990, a recipe for pimento cheese was rarely found in cookbooks. Today, it is not uncommon to see pimento cheese in magazines, newspapers, and even on some upscale menus. Yes, pimento cheese or Southern pate may not have been born in the South, but it found its home in the South and now the spread is making a name for itself far beyond its own backyard. Kind of inspiring for a mayo-based spread.
So, that is my long-winded account of what I found so dang fascinating about pimento cheese. If you made it through all that, your reward is the recipe for this delicious Pimento Cheese Tuna Melt. If you just scrolled through the post you already found the recipe but you missed a pretty rad story.
Pimento Cheese Tuna Melt
- 1 skillet
- 1 baking sheet
- 165 g 6 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons goat cheese softened
- 1/2 cup fire roasted red pepper diced fine
- 2 tablespoons pickles diced fine
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 cans skipjack tuna drained
- 4 slices bread
- 2 fried eggs optional
- 2 radishes shaved
- 1 mini cucumber shaved
- Fresh parsley for sprinkling
- Place the cheddar cheese, mayo, goat cheese, red pepper, pickles, mustard, and cayenne in a large bowl. Stir to combine. Wrap the mixture tightly with plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour. It's better if you leave it overnight.165 g 6 oz cheddar cheese, shredded, 3/4 cup mayonnaise, 3 tablespoons goat cheese, 1/2 cup fire roasted red pepper, 2 tablespoons pickles, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Mix the tuna into the chilled pimento cheese and set it aside. Toast the bread until golden, then slather each piece with the tuna/pimento cheese mixture. Place each slice, tuna-side-up, on a baking sheet and place under the broiler. Broil until bubbly and lightly browned, about 5 minutes depending on the strength of your broiler. Be sure to check on them frequently.2 cans skipjack tuna, 4 slices bread
- Remove the toasts from the oven and top with a fried egg, radish, cucumber, and parsley, if desired. Serve immediately with a glass of OJ.2 fried eggs, 2 radishes, 1 mini cucumber, Fresh parsley