I was at the local garden center a few weeks ago. While I was there I walked through their section of root-bound vegetables. It was later in the season and they had marked these items down. I was out of available growing space for the year, so I decided not to get anything even though I was captivated by a flat of scraggly looking pimento pepper plants.
Sometimes my entire thought process becomes distracted—even derailed—by a single word as though I’ve never seen that word before in my life. That day it was the word “pimento.” When I was growing up, my mother occasionally made pimento cheese sandwiches. I liked the taste until I thought of the pimentos that were used. When I was a little kid, I never knew that those red things floating in those short jars were sweet peppers. I thought they were fish. After all, everyone around me pronounced them “p’minnas” and minnows, those little fish used for bait, were called “minnas.” Those things in the jars looked slimy enough so I stayed clear of them until I was an adult and figured out they had nothing to do with freshwater fish.
While I stood paralyzed in the outdoor aisle of the garden center pondering pimentos, the embarrassment of my past ignorance turned my face red as a ripe pepper. How had I ever been so stupid? What else had I believed incorrectly? As these thoughts and memories swirled in my head, I suddenly developed a craving for a p’minna cheese sandwich.
How would I go about creating one? I didn’t think I had a recipe, and I could barely recall how my mother had made them since I did my best to avoid the kitchen when I saw those little pimento jars on the counter. I remember that she would take out the grater that she had had since getting married in 1952, and she would take out the block of Kraft American Cheese and hand grate a good portion of it. A jar of pimentos was probably chopped finely and added. Surely there was something else, and I assume Miracle Whip to bind it. Speaking of binding, this was spread on white bread.
By the age of five, I’d pretty much insisted on Wonder Bread in the house because I was enamored by it’s colorful packaging. I’m the person the ad agencies are thinking of when it comes to conning someone into buying their wares because they look good on the surface. It can be the blandest blend of tea, a gummy hair gel, a cleaning product that doesn’t clean; it can be almost anything and I’ll buy it if it comes wrapped in something that visually appeals to me.
I’ve come a long way in fighting this urge, but before I knew something about nutrition, I loved eating cheerfully packaged bread that was as soft and smooth as a 1,200 thread-count pillowcase. I’d even eat a p’minna cheese sandwich on it as long as I could eat around those slimy red fish.
Now that I know better and was having a craving, I thought about the ways I could update the recipe to make a contemporary sandwich. I could raise, harvest and roast my own pimentos. I could purchase a mixture of fine cheeses that could be grated. I would then make my own mayonnaise with Dijon mustard to bind it, and then I would spread it on a single layer of artisan bread and serve it open-faced. I realized that this wouldn’t taste anything like the sandwich of my childhood, but perhaps my fantasy was more about reinventing than reliving.
Later that day, I mentioned this incident to Gary. “Did you like pimento cheese sandwiches when you were a kid?”
“Not really, but I liked the little jars.”
“Little jars?” I asked. What could he be talking about?
“You know, the little jars that it came in.”
I had to think. Now that he mentioned it, I remember seeing pimento cheese spread sold in full-sized jars. Two of the “best cooks” in my childhood church were known to take this easy way out, and I recall seeing some smaller jars at some point. In spite of the dubious ingredients of the day, we had homemade sandwiches in our house. My heart went out to him for only knowing the stuff in a jar even though he thought I was nuts when I said we called it p’minna cheese.
He gets a kick out of things that I do and say when they are authentic and spontaneous isms from my upbringing. He thinks I make most of these things up, as he cannot believe that we called the knitted cap on our heads in winter a toboggan. I have polled people in front of him on this one, yet he remains unconvinced.
Something that always leads to confusion is when you say you’re going to take a bath. Where I came from, taking a bath didn’t literally mean soaking in a tub. You could take a shower and still call it a bath. Everyone in our household showers, but I still say bath if I’m not careful.
The biggest reaction to one of my “funny ideas” came when I tied up the bougainvillea and the lemon tree with hose. Not having any old hose at our disposal because it seems that none of our female friends wear hose anymore, I had to go to the 99-cent store to get new. They only had jet-black in queen-sized, so when he saw my handiwork in what I considered a fine makeshift lemon arbor, he cried out, “It looks like a bunch of bats are hanging from the limbs!”
I admit that a lighter hose would’ve been camouflaged. The stark contrast of the black made him refuse to believe that anyone had ever used such a method to secure a tree. Of course they have—and do! It’s usually more accessible and more affordable than fancy cords or rope. Hose lasts for years, and its flexibility can’t be beaten. One of my Louisiana friends defends the hosiery method, and insists that one get pantyhose if you grow cantaloupe. “You can use the crotch to hold the fruit. Just suspend it, and the hose will stretch as the cantaloupe grows.” This makes perfect sense!
I’m so appreciative of the common sense I got growing up, but life in a city often reveals how I misunderstood things along the way. I sent my foodie cousin Gwen a text about p’minna cheese sandwiches. Seconds later, she replied that I should have one with a “vye-eenie” on the side.
I knew she would appreciate my phonetic spelling, and I roared with laughter over hers of vye-eenie. For those who might be confused, I’m talking about those small Vienna sausages in a can. The largest percentage of friends and family with southern roots heard the word pronounced “vye-eenie” instead of an Austrian city. In fact, I was grown before I realized the proper pronunciation. I was watching a rerun of Coal Miner’s Daughter one Saturday night around Oscar time, and when Loretta Lynn’s father said for her to “Get you and your brother a can of vye-eenies” at the general store, I went into a trance similar to the one when I saw the word pimento and knew that we had said p’minnas.
By way of marriage, we had a relative for a few years who said Vienna instead of vye-eenie, and while he possessed more college degrees than anyone in the room, he found himself in the minority. He was laughed out of the house, out of town and all the way to Maine. We’re not sure, but his unwillingness to say vye-eenie may have contributed to the divorce.
Since I do not care for the taste of Vienna sausages, they do not come up in conversation all that often. My advice is to pronounce them the way the locals do wherever that happens to be. After all, the goal is to be understood whether you’re in the Loire Valley or Pascagoula.
A week later, I was still thinking about p’minna cheese sandwiches, and I searched through my cookbook collection to see what I could find. I realize that the Internet is quicker, but what good is having a library if you don’t use it? Julia Child and James Beard didn’t seem to be likely consultants, and Martha Stewart doesn’t seem to deal with pimento cheese as a sandwich spread. Finally I investigated Craig Claiborne. Why hadn’t I thought of him first? His Southern Cooking has always been a go-to source for me when I couldn’t find something that I wanted to recreate from that region. I struck gold as early as page seven.
He calls for canned pimentos, but he probably didn’t have a garden store nearby that sells plants. I’ll use canned if my harvest fails. Yes, I went back to get three plants.
Sometime after Labor Day, I expect to begin picking a payload of pimento peppers. I can already taste those sandwiches.
© 2014 by Patrick Brown