Tubs of Penny's pimento cheese, which is produced in Charlotte. (Photo via Penny's.) Cheese spread controversy
Tubs of Penny's pimento cheese, which is produced in Charlotte. (Photo via Penny's.)

NC-based pimento cheese brands step in after the SC owner of Palmetto Cheese lambasted the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Look at any pimento cheese label and you won’t find “politics” listed anywhere in the ingredients. 

But the two have been in the mix lately, and not for talk of its creamy, tangy goodness. 

Brian Henry, the owner of the South Carolina-based Palmetto Cheese, a favorite in the pimiento cheese world, created an uproar this summer after social media comments he made denigrating the Black Lives Matter movement went viral. His now-deleted Aug. 25 Facebook entry included the following: “Rise up America. This BLM and Antifa movement must be treated like the terror organizations that they are.”

Palmetto Cheese’s branding includes the tagline “The Pimento Cheese with Soul” and also prominently features an image of the late Vertrella Brown, a Black cook who specialized in Gullah and Low Country cuisine and worked for years at the Sea View Inn owned by the Henry family, according to the company’s website.  

Though Henry, who is white and also the mayor of Pawleys Island, later apologized for his comments, major retailer Costco stopped selling tubs of Palmetto Cheese.  A social media-fueld boycott of the brand has North Carolinians wondering how they can still get their pimento cheese fix. (We have some suggestions below.) 

Some Cheese Spread History 

Named for the pimento (or pimiento) pepper, it’s most commonly found in restaurants and households across the South. A Good Housekeeping cookbook from 1908 has one of the earliest printed recipes of the mixture.

Ruth’s, based in Charlotte, has been serving North Carolinians since 1953, and its pimento cheese is a mainstay found in refrigerated grocery cases across the state. 

Purists might argue as to what constitutes “real” pimento cheese but new and innovative twists on an old idea are popping up all over North Carolina. Whether you call it a dip, a spread, a topping, or a filling, chances are there’s a purveyor somewhere in the state serving up a version that fits the bill. 

The Queen City Gets in the Mix

In Charlotte, Peggy Brawley of Penny’s Foods has been carrying on the tradition since 2011. 

What began as a simple treat shared among loved ones turned into a full-fledged, family-run business that sells across North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia in grocery stories as well as some specialty stores. Their company carries more than a dozen different kinds of pimento cheese and aside from Original and Jalapeno, Brawley said Gouda and Bacon flavors are their best sellers. And, if 12 ounces at a time isn’t enough, they sell five-pound containers. While the exact recipe is a guarded family secret, Brawley did share a tip on why their product is different.

“We buy blocks of cheese and I shred it myself,” said Brawley. “Other companies buy it already shredded, which contains a preservative to keep it from sticking together, and it doesn’t melt as easily.”

Regarding sales and business, Brawley has noticed a few changes in light of the recent press. Most notably, several unnamed large stores have reached out about the possibility of Penny’s Foods products filling slots on their shelves, she said.

Durham’s Take on Pimento 

Over at American Meltdown in Durham, it’s all about meltability when it comes to pimento cheese. Paul Inserra, owner and self-proclaimed ‘director of delicious’ initially founded his business in 2012 as a food truck and restaurant. For Inserra, this indispensable “caviar of the South” has a rightful place at any table and he’s jumped on the pimento cheese wagon with his take-home version now sold around Durham. 

“Pimento cheese is a big deal in the South and belongs on every menu in some iteration,” Inserra said.

American Meltdown’s Pimento Cheese (Image via Paul Inserra.)

What developed over eight years of tweaking and fine-tuning was a recipe that went heavier on the cheese, used less mayo and included dollops of fermented chili sauce. While American Meltdown’s physical operations h shut down due to COVID-19, Inserra was already transitioning into retail and manufacturing. His pimento cheese product is a key product on the line.

And though the highly personal debate rages on as to the best way to enjoy it, Inserra suggest trying his “on a bacon, egg, and cheese melt with arugula.” 

Self-made Snacks 

While small, family-owned businesses around North Carolina are in need of support, there is one more way to keep opinions, good or bad, entirely out of the process. 

Make your own. 

In the comfort of your kitchen, a batch of pimento cheese (roughly 3-5 cups) can be made in minutes and, if kept refrigerated, last up to two weeks. 

An easy Southern-inspired recipe calls for cream cheese, shredded sharp cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and diced pimentos to start but you can always get adventurous with personal customizations. Seasonings like cayenne, onion or garlic powder, jalapenos, and salt and pepper can be added to suit your tastes.

Pour all of the ingredients into one bowl, mix thoroughly and transfer to an air-tight container. 

Serve it on crackers, melt it into scrambled eggs or just scoop it plain right from the bowl.