Time for another edition of our Recipes from the Archives blog series – week’s dish is Gail Gibson’s “Better than the M&M’s Pimento Cheese” from Great Expectations: The Davidson College 1990-1991 Office Support Staff Cookbook.
The Office Support Staff organization was born out of a long tradition of social groups founded by women staff members at Davidson College – in the 1950s, Professor Ernest Beaty (Class of 1920; English and Latin professor at Davidson College from 1925 to 1966) nicknamed the group of office workers “The Chambermaids,” a reference to the statues on Chambers Building, where most of the women worked. The group first drafted a Statement of Purpose in 1975, illustrating their goals: “The purpose of THE CHAMBERMAIDS shall be to support the students, faculty and administration of Davidson College; to encourage in a considerate and professional manner the full potential development of its members; to foster fellowship; and to establish an official line of communication between its members and the College in order to promote greater understanding and cooperation.”
In 1982, The Chambermaids changed their organization name to Office Support Staff. At the time that the Great Expectations cookbook was produced as a fund-raiser, the organization officers were: Kristi Newton (President), Pat Gardner (Vice-President), Ethel Black (Secretary), and Jo Archie (Treasurer). The front page of the cookbook provides a history of the Office Support Staff, including the major achievements of the group: “Ever since that time the ‘Chambermaids’, now known as the ‘Office Support Staff’, has accomplished a variety of goals such as tuition benefits for our children, flexible summer work hours, using a percentage of our sick days for personal leave time, cumulative years of service to count towards vacation leave, the posting of all jobs so that we are aware of the availabilities and representation on various campus committees, just to name a few.” The Office Support Staff ceased meeting as an organization in 2009.
Though Great Expectations was compiled by the Office Support Staff, recipes were solicited from across all areas of campus. The recipe I chose was submitted by Gail Gibson, who taught in the English department from 1983 until her retirement in 2014. Gibson served as the College Marshall for many years, and is particularly well-known for staging a Chaucer banquet in her home as part of her curriculum. As the College news story on her retirement states, Gibson was very interested in food studies: “‘The best way to know a culture is to know how it eats!’ she explained. The Chaucer banquets ultimately led her to develop popular writing classes focused on food that she taught for years – food as symbol, food as a reflection of culture, food memoir and the anthropology of food.”
Gibson’s statement on the cultural import of food is particularly apropos as we look at her recipe for pimento cheese, a beloved Southern classic. Pimento cheese, as Scott Huler puts it in his story on the history of the food in Our State magazine, is a “Southern, rural, working-class icon — Carolina caviar, some call it” with a fascinating backstory. As a North Carolina transplant, I was particularly interested in having a go at making this cultural staple for the first time.
Gibson’s take on pimento cheese is notable for the absence of mayonnaise, usually considered a key ingredient. The title, “Better than M&M’s Pimento Cheese” refers to what today’s Davidsonians just know as the Soda Shop. Opened in 1951 by Mary Potts and Murray Fleming (the two “M’s” in the name of the business), M&M Soda Shop has been a town staple ever since. Potts sold the business in 1985, but many of her original recipes remain popular menu items, including their pimento cheese.
Gibson’s recipe title is a playful homage to the popularity of M&M’s pimento cheese, suggesting this recipe is even better. I had a little bit of trouble making the recipe – the cream cheese did not easily combine with the other ingredients, and required a bit of milk to thin it out. I also ended up adding more grated cheese than the recipe called for, since once I had completed mixing the ingredients, the orange mixture seemed too smooth. Having never tasted the original M&M’s pimento cheese, I can’t say for sure that this recipe is better… but it is delicious!