A riff on a classic - the Pimento Cheese Salad from Russells Cafe in Austin
I’m a born and bred Texan, as is my mom, her parents and their parents back six generations total. So I know a little something about state pride, swimming holes and fried foodstuffs on sticks.
I grew up in a small river town surrounded by farmland, an accidental locavore from an early age. If you didn’t grow it yourself – my Grandpa had a bathtub out back for the specific purpose of growing onions and cherry tomatoes – you could likely barter with a neighbor. I could walk to the nearby campground canteen for an occasional fresh baked cookie or ride my bike up to the gas station / beer joint for a tiny bottle of icy cold Coke and a massive dill pickle. Meat came from the butcher not five-miles-away. Catfish was supplied on Friday nights at the boat-in restaurant, Hot Shots. San Antonio was quick drive down IH10 if you hankered for authentic tacos and margaritas the size of fish bowls. Thank you, Mi Tiera and Grandma for sneaking me my first taste of that sweet and salty sin. And the town over was a basically German colony plunked down in the foothills of the Hill Country. Our rural address rewarded us with diverse victual traditions.
That being said, lettuce was always iceberg and pretty much the only salad dressing offered, Ranch.
Then came college, in a certain city currently being recognized for its gastronomic delights. I was introduced to arugula, gorgonzola and all manner of beer. Up until the age of 18 I swear I thought the only brand was Lone Star, not necessarily a bad thing. I also became a vegetarian, easy to do in the land of the original Whole Foods, but don’t worry, you’ll still get your chicken fried steak and BBQ coverage. But come on. It’s Texas. I probably consumed a lifetime supply of beef before I even learned to walk. And that’s why I’ll be bringing along the mister, my carnivore companion.
When I moved to New York City shortly after graduation I think people were surprised by my culinary curiosity. I reveled in the discovery of rajma, rhapsodized over bánh mi and got schooled on pizza. Though I have to admit to deep-seated craving for Mr. Gatti’s sweet sauce. Fortunately, I’m back home often enough to seek out the new – Paul Qui’s dishes live up to the hype – and also tastes from my childhood. Passed down recipes full of loosely guarded secret ingredients, food now considered artisanal but in Texas, that’s how things have always been made. Homemade.
In the spirit of memorable meals past, I’d like to share a stripped down recipe of a beloved Southern staple, pimento cheese. Every family makes this comforting spread differently. I’m sure quite a few engagements have even been called off on account of someone insisting on the real thing while the other makes do with the processed Price’s version. Admittedly, that stuff tastes good too and is found in most people’s fridges, right next to the bottled hot sauce. I like throwing in a few jalapenos while my mom doctors hers with green olives and sometimes cream cheese. I’ve had versions melted into biscuits, topping a panko fried green tomato and even as a salad - husband’s kind of green. But in the end, nothing quite compares to the original, simple four-ingredient sandwich. Enjoy.
¾ cup grated sharp Cheddar
2 tbl mayonnaise
1 tbl pimentos
2 slices country white bread
I’m of the mix rather than mash camp of the first three ingredients. When it looks like the pimentos are evenly distributed and the cheese and mayo are, place it all in the middle of a slice of bread, top with the other and get ready to be addicted.
BOOTS & BOTTLES
by Jacque Lynn Schiller