You don’t have to be a Southerner to try pimento cheese
CAMBRIDGE — Customers at Savenor’s Market seem perplexed by a pimento cheese tasting. Pimento cheese is a spread made with bottled red pimentos — the kind that might be stuffed into a green olive. It’s beloved in the South but not something New Englanders crave. It’s unlikely that many Northerners have ever smeared some on a cracker or celery stick.
John Morgan, a born and bred Tar Heel, was handing out samples of Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale, his handcrafted mixture. Savenor’s chef, Sam Ferguson, knew about the product and brought it to the shop. Morgan came “to spread the gospel in some small way about this regional peculiarity,” says the entrepreneur, who is based in Charlotte, N.C. “Most folks here either haven’t heard of pimento cheese or they never tasted it, which is a huge change from what we’re used to.”
Southerners from North Carolina to Texas make endless variations of the iconic staple, which is typically a blend of grated cheddar, diced bottled pimento peppers, Duke’s mayonnaise (they’re serious about this specific brand, another Southern specialty), salt, and black pepper.
Queen Charlotte’s version is different. Thick and chunky with a cream cheese base, it’s light on the mayo and packed with coarse shreds of extra sharp cheddar, white cheddar, and pepper jack, and bits of pimento. One variety has jalapeno and hot sauce, another comes with hunks of bacon and smoked cheddar ($8.99 for 10 ounces). It’s worthy of eating straight from a spoon.
Morgan, 33, started making pimento cheese in college and friends always commented that he should package “the stuff.” An art teacher at an elementary school in Monroe, outside of Charlotte, he is also a portrait artist, musician, and a history and trivia buff. Three years ago, he was a contestant on “Jeopardy!,” something he aspired to as a kid. He passed the tests (the show vets its contestants) and competed only one day. He was leading the game but was stumped going into the final round, and placed second, winning $2,000. “For a schoolteacher that’s a good chunk of change,” he says. That was seed money for his pimento cheese company.
The label is Morgan’s own artwork. It’s a drawing that resembles a queen in a deck of cards, but also a collage of symbols that represent his city, such as a sketch of the Charlotte skyline and a hornet’s nest to signify the “hornet’s nest of rebellion,” a name bestowed on the city during the Revolutionary War by British commander General Charles Cornwallis.
Queen Charlotte’s is a one-man operation, with some help from family and Morgan’s fiancée, Myers McKenzie, 29. He works evenings in a shared commercial kitchen churning out as much as 400 pounds of pimento cheese a night, often solo, to supply dozens of retail and restaurant accounts.
Some shoppers at Savenor’s who try a sample are wowed more than others. One customer is adamant that she dislikes pimento. After a taste, she leaves with three tubs “and the enlightened smile of a convert,” says Morgan.
Queen Charlotte’s Pimento Cheese Royale available at Savenor’s Market, 92 Kirkland St., Cambridge, 617-576-6328, and 160 Charles St., Boston, 617-723-6328, or go to www.qccheese.com.