An ode to pimento cheese

April, 7, 2011
04/07/11
4:23
PM ET

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There is a pimento cheese sandwich on the table next to my computer. It's looking at me. I've promised myself I won't eat it until I finish this postcard. It is a reward, taunting me in a green plastic bag.

Only in the South would a sporting event serve pimento cheese.

__________


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Masters Pimento Cheese Sandwich
Wright Thompson/ESPN A pimento cheese sandwich at Augusta.

A note for the Yankee readers: This sandwich is a divine concoction, made with a mayonnaise-based cheese spread and white bread. Wonder Bread, if it's available. It is a Southern staple, of tailgates and church picnics, made for baby showers and for funerals. When my daddy died, a neighbor brought over a bag of them. I sat at our kitchen table, eating one after another. They are comfort food. In Oxford, Miss., where I live, a particularly famous version is sold out of a gas station. Another is served in the nicest restaurant in town, the City Grocery. (Disclosure: The owner/chef is John Currence, one of my best friends, and a current contestant on "Top Chef Masters.") It's a food you can take anywhere.

For me, it is best enjoyed right outside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Every Saturday in the fall, when Ole Miss is at home, we bring the pimento cheese to our family tailgate. I wake up early in the morning, spreading a layer on the bread, then cutting off the crusts, then cutting each sandwich into three skinny finger sandwiches. Late that night, half crocked, or the next morning, hungover, I like to break out the leftovers. Tailgate in the kitchen, my wife calls it. Even smelling pimento cheese takes me to football season. Every person from the South who bites into one of these things at the Masters feels the same way.

They are transported.

To a tailgate.

To a debutante ball. To a church picnic.

To their grandmother's house.

__________


History lesson: Yesterday, I called my friend, John T. Edge, who is the head of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

"How was the pimento cheese sandwich invented?"

He cackled. John T., if you've never seen him on "Iron Chef" or some various food program, has a spectacular laugh. It's the Bobby Jones of laughs.

"It's like asking how did the world begin to spin," he says.

There are many theories, he explains, camps who back different histories. He believes that it began in the early 20th century South, making a meal out of the much-maligned government cheese. There is something wonderful about the Masters of the Universe here at Augusta eating a sandwich born from government cheese.

Other people began making it with the cheese sold in country stores. Some people call it rat cheese. My daddy always called it hoop cheese. He pronounced it "hup."

Hup cheese.

__________


Walter Thompson loved pimento cheese. His favorite recipe was, of course, his mom's. Her name was Olga Wright Thompson. All the grandkids called her Mama T. She was Miss Central High in Jackson, and ended up marrying a farmer. She was a city girl who learned how to shoot a moving target from the porch. She was a beautiful lady and devoted to her four boys. The woman could do anything. She sculpted. She painted. She had a CB radio. I seem to remember her handle being Sunshine Lady. Once, she cooked a roast on the carburetor of her car. I remember being slightly afraid of her, and I remember how devoted my daddy was to her, and how a part of him died when she did.

This is her pimento cheese recipe. It serves 20.

Extra sharp cheddar. Two 10-ounce packages.

Two small jars of pimentos

One and a half teaspoon Worcestershire

Two teaspoons grated onion

One whole clove garlic

Pepper and salt

Mayonnaise

Grate cheese coarsely. Add pimentos, Worcestershire, onion, garlic. Use enough mayonnaise to achieve right consistency (it should be easily spreadable but not runny). Add salt and pepper to taste.

__________


It is time.

I am sitting in the Masters press room, but I think of my grandmother, and football games as a child, and as a grown man, of the dozen sandwiches I ate after my daddy's funeral, and of the grilled version I ate four days ago at Toomer's Drug Store in Auburn, Ala. I think of the time I brought my wife to the Masters, and we bought one after another, and how, the next year, I FedExed her one from the course. The sandwiches aren't fancy, and they can be an acquired taste, but there are part of my life. They are a piece of the South I missed when I moved away.

They are a piece I don't take for granted now that I'm back.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
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