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Wisconsin Pimento Cheese, By Way of Texas

Dec. 18, 2012
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Wisconsin may be America’s cheese capitol, but when it comes to at least one kind of cheese, the South has our state beat. Pimento cheese is popular throughout Southern states, readily available not only in grocery stores, but also corner stores, gas stations and just about any other shop with a refrigerator. Yet it’s a rare find up North, even in Wisconsin, where the spread’s blend of cheddar, roasted pimento peppers and mayonnaise would seem a natural fit with local food traditions.

Like so many Texans, Martha Davis Kipcak grew up eating pimento cheese. When she moved to Wisconsin in the ’90s, though, she was disappointed to discover that the spread was nowhere to be found. “I’ve been looking over my shoulder for pimento cheese for the last 10 years, thinking that surely somebody in this high cheese renaissance will begin to make local pimento cheese,” she says. “Eventually it became clear that nobody was going to step forward, so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I pitched the idea to some cheese folks around here, and they were into it.”

Kipcak’s company, Mighty Fine Food—the name is a nod to both Kipcak’s Southern heritage and her background in food activism—launched Martha’s Pimento Cheese in November. It’s a fairly traditional take on the cheese, except that it adds jalapenos (not uncommon in Texan versions of the recipe) and uses aged Wisconsin cheddar, which lends it a sharper flavor than many varieties. Kipcak’s version also uses more cheese and less mayonnaise than some Southern versions, making it thicker.

“Pimento cheese is almost like salsa, in that everybody understands what the basic ingredients are and you can put it in anything, but you can make your own and go off in any direction,” Kipcak says. “I’ve been making my own since high school. I’m one of four girls, and we all make our own pimento cheese, and all ours are different from each other.”

Martha’s Pimento Cheese can be served with pretzels and crackers or on top of burgers, baked potatoes or Portobello mushrooms, but it’s also substantial enough to stand as its own sandwich filling. And though pimento cheese has a bad reputation among some folks who may have experienced processed versions of the spread, Kipcak’s version is much more natural.

“Like everything in our industrialized food system, pimento cheese has been dumbed down and made for the masses using processed cheese that would be shelf stable and hang around for months and months, and it tasted like it,” Kipcak says. “A lot of older generations remember Kraft’s version of it, which was an orange, plastic mass that was just awful, but this is nothing like that. The sharp cheddar really lends nice, complex notes to it, which makes it really delicious.”

“To some, pimento cheese might seem pedestrian,” she says, “but that’s what I love about it. It’s neither highbrow nor lowbrow food. It’s an everyman food.”

Martha’s Pimento Cheese is available at Milwaukee-area retailers, including Beans & Barley, Glorioso’s Italian Market, Clock Shadow Creamery, Sweet Water Organics-Milwaukee and Larry’s Market.

Mighty Fine Food is located at 4043 N. Downer Ave. For more information, visit marthaspimentocheese.com.


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