In a world in which we hope to be seduced and moved by food, mayonnaise just sits there, daring us all to love it.
Mayonnaise has a lineage that is easy to see its lineage: a family tree of exquisite, aristocratic sauces that might claim this very “common” descendant as its own only in hushed tones, refusing to admit anything they bore could be scooped from a plastic jug, mixed with unsophisticated ingredients or tossed into, my word, casseroles. Rémoulade and aioli would never.
We Americans, however, dare. And Southerners? Well, we nearly bet our lives on it.
From our tomato sandwiches to our salads, adding mayo seems bone deep in our impulses. Pimento cheese is a kind of grand and final submission to the mayonnaise gods.
The marriage of sharp shredded cheese, roasted peppers, some onion, the right shake of vinegar and mayo seems like a whole lot of “not much.” You might assume that it tastes cheap or just “novel,” maybe interesting only during the first few bites with the potential to descend quickly into “bland” or “strange.” This might cause the worst of us to use phrases like “mouth feel” or “flavor profile” to insist that we are far superior, not lowbrow enough to understand its appeal. I’ve met a few of those people. I don’t recall at this exact moment if I know them anymore.
Recipe: Pimento Cheese Slab Pie
This is not to say that everyone has to like pimento cheese. I’m not one of those people who will insist that you love a thing. But not liking pimento cheese for whatever incorrect reason feels like complaining about a murmuration of birds collecting in the sky or a cat’s sitting on your lap. Go ahead and moan about the bird poop on your car or the cat hair on your pants. I’ll light a candle for you next time I’m thinking about lost souls.
For some time, it felt simply impossible to take something like pimento cheese and create anything better or more deserving of our love. That was before I started collaborating with other chefs.
This was how a pimento-cheese hand pie — here evolved into a majestic slab pie — was born, when two chefs took two nearly perfected recipes, years in the making, and created one thing together. I stood in a kitchen with Ashley Christensen, the chef-owner of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, N.C., with her meticulous pimento cheese and me with my pride-and-joy pie dough. We didn’t have to speak; we were in the spiritual realm of inspiration. Our eyes locked, our mouths grinned and we began.
The combination of her pitch-perfect pimento and my sturdy yet wonderfully flaky crust is, not surprisingly, quite magical. As I built these pies, scooping Ashley’s cheese into my dough and pressing it together, I thought through possible problems. Would the cheese just melt away into a hot lava of nothing? Would the mayo make the dough soggy? What if? What if? What if? As it turned out, I did not need to worry. They baked perfectly. The mayo didn’t soak into the pie dough. Instead, much like using mayo to grill bread, it simply adds another layer of crunch. The cheese inside? Delectably intact.
What is pimento cheese if not the ideal metaphor for friendship and collaboration, anyway? In this metaphor, I know who the sharp, self-assured Cheddar might be (absolutely Ashley) and who takes the crown for the misfit mayo (raises hand). But mostly, this pie, with its perfectly cheesy center and its crispy salty bite, is a testament to how much finesse, style and quality we small creatures of imperfection might bring if we only carry our gifts toward the center to share them. So that we all might aspire to be more than simple, lowly mayo in a plastic jug, capable of so much when given a chance.
Recipe: Pimento Cheese Slab Pie