How to craft a winning version of golf’s iconic green-jacketed sandwich.
By John Lehndorff
I’M EMBARRASSED to say that until recently I was a pimento cheese virgin. Despite a 30-year- plus career as a dining critic and writer, I had somehow missed out on this Southern favorite.
I could blame a sheltered Yankee youth in Massachusetts and a life in Colorado, but I actually was aware that pimento cheese existed. I just figured it was like queso or a Christmas cheese ball.
I went looking for pimento cheese because it is at the heart of golf’s most famous (and least expensive lunch). In a sport that cherishes traditions and rituals, the Pimento Cheese Sandwich sold at the Masters Tournament is an absolute icon. What I also discovered is that pimento cheese is everywhere and on the shelf in almost every Colorado supermarket.
This spread is a curious cousin to tuna salad, egg salad and chicken salad. Shredded cheddar, mayo and sweet pimento peppers and cream cheese are combined with seasonings and can range from totally bland to fiery.
HOW PIMENTO CHEESE ARRIVED AT THE MASTERS
Alongside greens, biscuits, cornbread and grits, pimento cheese is a sacred part of Southern cuisine. However, if you go down the pimento cheese rabbit hole, you run into conflicting history, golf myths and recipe controversies. For one thing, the cherished “pate of the South” was actually invented by Yankees.
The story goes that in the early 20th century New York cream cheese became popular and canned sweet “pimiento” peppers arrived from Spain. (We dropped the “i” and started calling them “pimentos.” Cooks started combining the ingredients into simple, satisfying affordable tea sandwiches which became hugely popular in the South.
The exact date is hazy but sometime in the mid-1950s, the cheese salad sandwich was first served to feed the crowds during the week of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.
The cherished pimento cheese sandwich— simply pimento spread and mayo on squishy white bread with no toppings—still sells for $1.50. It’s jacketed in a green bag. The idea is that if the bag blows away it’ll blend in with the green grass and not distract the golfers.
BEATING THE SPREAD: WHO SELLS THE BEST PIMENTO SPREAD?
Until I sat down and tasted multiple varieties of pimento cheese spread, I imagined they all would taste about the same. I was incorrect. Here are the pimento cheese spreads available at local supermarkets, from the best to the worst.
MARCZYK’S FINE FOODS DISCO JIM’S PIMENTO CHEESE SPREAD:
Using finely ground topnotch sharp cheddar, fire-roasted red pimento peppers, mayonnaise and spices, this spread has the biggest flavor of the bunch: spicier, fuller, dense spread. Highly recommended. Available at Marczyk’s Fine Foods locations: marczykfinefoods.com
TRADER JOE’S PIMENTO CHEESE DIP:
Labeled a dip, Trader Joe’s version is a little heavier on the mayo so it’s actually spreadable but it has a great grownup flavor with lots of sharp cheddar and roasted pimento peppers. Recommended. Available at Trader Joe’s.
KROGER PRIVATE SELECTION PIMENTO CHEESE:
The house brand at King Soopers is a surprising pleasure with chunkier aged cheddar, lots of pimento, good spicing and a nice balance between the mayo and cream cheese. This is the good-tasting affordable choice. Recommended. Available at King Soopers.
PALMETTO CHEESE SPREAD:
Southerners tell me this product from South Carolina’s Lowcountry is as close to the Masters spread as you’ll find outside Augusta. I find it to be pretty bland with thickly grated cheese, mayo and a bare hint of heat. Recommended for traditionalists: Available at King Soopers and other supermarkets.
PRICE’S PIMENTO CHEESE SPREAD:
This is the Velveeta of pimento cheeses and profoundly bland. The spread is laced with high fructose corn syrup so it’s incredibly sweet. Not recommended. Available at Walmart.
While the sandwich has become as symbolic of The Masters as the golf course’s pink and white azaleas, the “authentic” recipe has often changed.
What is known is that a South Carolina man, Nick Rangos, made pimento cheese for the sandwiches at Augusta for more than four decades. Let go unceremoniously in the early 2000s, Rangos refused to share his recipe until the day he died. Attendees complained about the taste, they tweaked the recipe in Augusta and served it for the next fifteen years. Then, a change of caterers at the Masters in 2013 caused more howls from traditionalists.
MASTERING PIMENTO CHEESE AT HOME
To experience the pimento cheese sandwich at home (since few Colorado eateries serve it), you’ll need a prepared spread or make one yourself. (See sidebar for reviews of prepared pimento cheese spreads.)
Luckily, making your own is ridiculously easy and allows you to personalize the fla- vor. For instance, you can substitute roasted Pueblo green chilies for the pimentos. For the cheese I use locals such as Rocking Horse White Cheddar (Salida) and Haystack Mountain Smoked Cheddar (Longmont). Do not use packaged pre-shredded cheeses because their anti-clumping coating changes the texture. Grate your own using the wider openings in a box grater.
The better the bread, the better your Masters sandwich will taste. Local bakeries produce exceptional white bread loaves such as the shokupan loaf at Tokyo Premium Bakery in Denver. Denser, thicker slices hold up better because pimento spread is thick and hard to spread.
I didn’t love this sandwich until one day I pan-grilled it in a covered pan with butter un- til the bread got crunchy. The spread melted and created a crispy cheese delight. For a good brunch, add bacon and tomato slices and top the sandwich with an over-easy egg.
I don’t know if my version of pimento cheese spread is authentic, but it’s darn tasty.
A Coloradan since 1976, John Lehndorff is the former Dining Critic of the Rocky Mountain News and Food Editor of the Boulder Daily Camera. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU.
This article was also featured in the April Issue of Colorado AvidGolfer.