The Internet’s eerie, Twilight Zone-like ability to instantaneously affirm vintage memories still catches me off guard.
Take, for example, my recent quest to find images of the 1960s Kraft Pimento Cheese jar. I discovered that collectors cruising websites such as Etsy and eBay purchase the glass jars, now peddled as pure “Americana.”
Constant fixtures in my parents’ kitchen, the five-ounce jars either sat on a refrigerator shelf filled with the orange-ish cheese spread or in a cupboard, empty and repurposed as juice glasses.
Now the jars are worth anywhere from $5 to $9 — roughly four to six times their original value.
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To the uninitiated, pimento cheese might seem like a strange dish worth skipping. Golf fans no doubt are familiar with the legendary pimiento cheese sandwiches served in thin green plastic bags at the Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters.
Those who grew up in the South may consider pimento cheese — often called the pâté of the South or Carolina caviar — an iconic Southern food, although the pedigree of its origins is murky, at best.
My dad introduced me to the simple pleasures of pimento cheese by smearing the Kraft olive-pimento variety on tiny Pepperidge Farms rye cocktail rounds, slathering the outside slices in margarine and grilling them to toasty perfection. Frequently served as Saturday lunch, along with ice-cold Dr Pepper, my sister, brother and I thought we were on holiday.
It was special — the tradition, not the pimento cheese, which I later found as an adult with a seasoned palate was substandard.
Prompting the search into my cloudy childhood scrapbook is one Bill Denney, proprietor of Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese. Denney hawks his made-in-Kansas City product at the City Market Farmers’ Market on weekends and invited me to hang with him under his tent one Saturday morning and meet Little Bill’s regular customers and newly minted pimento cheese evangelists.
Denney is a sincere guy with a passion for his pimento cheese, which celebrated its one-year birthday in June. The cheese, made with high-quality ingredients, is based on the treat his grandma, Mary Ruth, brought to family functions.
“It wasn’t a real get-together if her pimento cheese was missing,” Denney said.
Denney loved Grandma Mary Ruth’s pimento cheese so much that he often joked with his dad, aunts and uncles that someday he would bring the product to market.
And then, during an annual fishing trip to Minnesota two years ago, the deal was sealed.
“We were all enjoying a few beers before dinner, and started talking about grandma’s pimento cheese,” Denney recalled. “I said it was time to start the business.”
Denney returned to Kansas City on a mission — to track down Mary Ruth’s original pimento cheese recipe. Like many cooks of her era, she didn’t record the ingredients or measurements on an index card.
“As I researched what I thought I ate at countless family reunions and parties, I learned each pimento cheese prepared by my relatives was actually an adaption, because no one knew what the real recipe was,” Denney said. “There were at least 25 versions of Mary Ruth’s pimento cheese in our family tree.”
Denney sequestered himself in the kitchen, spending hours tinkering with pimento cheese recipes and using family, friends and neighbors as focus groups. Ultimately enlisting the help of his Northland bowling league buddies, Denney arrived at a recipe he liked — and one he thought would resonate with the public, too.
Since introducing Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese last summer, Denney has added jalapeno and bacon flavors to his repertoire. Shoppers at the City Market sample the trio of pimento cheeses and loyal customers like Andrew and Carmen Ruder of Kansas City swing by Denney’s tent every week for a couple of tubs of jalapeno.
“They have been customers from the beginning and regularly contribute to my Facebook questions and my experiments,” Denney said. “An informal test couple of sorts, I’m always asking their opinions on different things.”
During my time at the Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese stand at the City Market, I meet the Ruders; medical student Jeremy Horak and his wife, Amanda; Justin and Samara Rhea from Lee’s Summit; Katie Bode and Chelsey Walters of Overland Park; and a host of other browsers who sample, banter with Denney about the best way to eat Little Bill’s (“Mix the bacon and jalapeno together; that’s killer” is his standard answer) and leave with brown paper bags full of the cheese.
Denney, an avid home cook, admits he is in his element with Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese, even if the secret recipe isn’t a dead-ringer for Mary Ruth’s beloved concoction.
“It’s a toss-up between the jalapeno and original flavors for popularity,” Denney said, “Earlier this summer I tested a buffalo-style cheese and people loved it, and I collaborated with San Man Gardens Pineapple Jalapeno Jam, which was a hit.”
Denney might incorporate habaneros for a stealth kick to Little Bill’s recipe and has other creative ingredients up his sleeve for the evolving line of pimento cheeses.
As the sun blazes down on City Market shoppers, I help Denney dole out samples of Little Bill’s to the curious, including a little girl fresh from the face-painting booth around the corner.
As she stands on her tiptoes to reach the cheese display and tentatively tastes the cheese on a pretzel stick and asks for seconds and then thirds, Denney smiles.
“That,” he said, “would make Grandma Mary Ruth very happy.”
Bill Denney spent his 40th birthday on June 7, 2013, whipping up inaugural batches of his Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese. After serving as Little’s Bill’s unofficial taste-testers, his Northland bowling league at Gladstone Bowl gave its stamp of approval to the final recipe.
“I knew I would get honest feedback from them,” Denney laughed. “Have you ever met a dishonest bowler?”
Although Little Bill’s is available only at the City Market or by special order, Denney hopes to roll it out in area stores soon. For more information on the product, to place an order or to receive weekly enewsletters, visit LittleBillsPimentoCheese.com.
Here are some summertime recipes using Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese:
Grilled Jalapeno Peppers Stuffed with Pimento Cheese
1 12-ounce tub of Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese
12-15 jalapeno peppers, halved lengthwise and seeded
3-4 strips of cooked bacon
Grill peppers over medium-hot heat for 4-5 minutes or until peppers are about 80% done — almost tender. Remove peppers from grill, let cool enough to handle, fill peppers with Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese, top with bacon and place back on grill until cheese is melted.
Note: Wear disposable gloves when cutting hot peppers; the oils can burn skin. Avoid touching your face.
Pimento Cheese Deviled Eggs
Place eggs in a single layer in a saucepan and cover with enough water that there’s at least 1 1/2 inches of water above the eggs. Heat on high until water begins to boil, cover, turn the heat to low, and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat and leave covered for 14 minutes, then rinse under cold water for 1 minute.
Crack eggshells and carefully peel under cool running water. Gently dry with paper towels. Slice the eggs in half lengthwise, removing yolks to a medium bowl, and placing the whites on a serving platter.
Mash the yolks into a fine crumble using a fork and add 2 tablespoons of Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese, any variety, for every 4-6-egg yolks, and mix well. Evenly disperse heaping teaspoons of the yolk mixture into the egg whites. Sprinkle with paprika and chives/green onions and serve.
If you have any leftover cheese/yolk mixture, save it and spread on toast for a fantastic sandwich.
Grilled Polish and Pimento
1 pound of polish sausage (or sausage of your choice)
1 large onion
2 teaspoon of butter
1 package hoagie rolls, unsliced
1 12-ounce tub of Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese, any variety
Slice onion, place in pan with melted butter and cook over medium-high heat for approx. 10 minutes, until soft. Place polish sausage on the grill until cooked thoroughly. Slice open a hoagie roll 3/4 of the way. Place polish sausage on the roll, top with Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese and onions. Place roll back on the grill for a few minutes over low heat.
Pimento Cheese Pinwheels
1 package (8 ounces) of refrigerated crescent dinner rolls
Approximately half a tub of your favorite Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Unroll dough onto work surface, firmly press perforations and seams together to form 12” x 8 “ rectangle. Spread with Little Bill’s Pimento Cheese and cut into 16 slices (can be a little difficult to slice) with a very sharp knife (see the note below). Place the slices 2 apart on a greased baking sheet. Bake 13-15 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.
Note: The rolled dough and cheese can be easier to cut into slices after an hour or so in the fridge.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.