The short, stocky, thick-skinned jalapeño needs no label: its shape is identifiable to even the most novice pepper eater. Equally familiar is the triangular black-green poblano, and, of course, the large, lantern-like bell. What causes confusion among Kevin Meehan’s customers at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market are small, heart-shaped peppers that blush in late summer.
“I put them on the table because they are a conversation piece,” Meehan says. “You’d be amazed at how many people pick [them] up because [they’re] unusual looking.” But while most folks think they’ve come across something new, they’ve actually found something quite familiar: the pimiento. It’s the stuffing in pitted green olives. It’s the pretty dot in cheese. And it’s one of a two-part item ordered often in the South and increasingly beyond.
Pimento cheese would be nothing without it. Try imagining any level of fanfare for a mix of plain old mayonnaise and grated cheddar. Pimientos provide a welcome sweet and sour flavor, one that’s more complex that their ubiquitous first cousin: the red bell pepper. They also make the spread look good. As an early Kraft advertisement once described, they gave the spread the appearance of being “studded, like rubies.” But most importantly when it comes to pimento cheese, it’s the pepper that rooted the spread in this region.
*Read on in Edible Piedmont.