A tall stack of tart dill pickles sits on the plate next to a beautifully grilled golden-brown pimento cheese sandwich. A bag of potato chips lays within arm’s reach. “We’ll make us a sandwich,” Vicki Burke Brown says and smiles as she shares stories of her childhood in Prestonsburg. She practically grew up in the aisles of her family’s business, the Fountain Korner Drug Store.
Three brothers — Joe, Hern and Johnny Burke — owned and operated the Korner Drug that served the Prestonsburg community for 40 years. The business was a family affair. Along with their wives and children, which included Vicki, the brothers worked at the store and had a role to play to keep things at the store running smoothly, from sweeping the floors and stocking the shelves, to preparing the food served at the snack bar.
Every morning, a pot of coffee started brewing at 5 a.m. Throughout the day, businessmen, ladies who lunch, and school kids filtered in and out of the store. Prestonsburg folks gathered here daily, whether they got up early for breakfast, stopped in at lunchtime for a hamburger, French fries, and a vanilla Coke, or warmed up with hot chocolate after a day of sledding down Post Office hill. Everyone felt like extended family at the Korner Drug and the food was always a talking point.
The menu included a little bit of everything but the real standouts were made by her mother and aunts. “My Mom made the pimento cheese up there that they had at the snack bar, my aunt made the potato salad and pies. They said my other aunt made the ham salad but I think it was my uncle, though.”
Vicki began making and selling her mother’s pimento cheese after she found herself in between jobs. Vicki’s husband of 40 years, Wayne Brown, is in the business of food — Brown’s Foodservice, Inc. located in Louisa — and said, “Why don’t you try to make your mom’s pimento cheese?”
“So I found our old grinder and he brought me what they used to buy as close as we knew it,” Vicki said. “Her recipe doesn’t have any quantities in it.”
Every week to two weeks, she makes her way to the Floyd County Extension Office, where 15 to 30 pounds of American cheese, countless jars of mayonnaise and pimentos wait to be mixed, perfected and packaged. The rest of the recipe is a well-guarded family secret, but nobody’s holding that against her. It’s simple, homemade and delicious. You don’t ask questions. You just reap all the benefits. It is the very same pimento cheese recipe that everyone who ever visited the Korner Drug remembers and loves.
Though three simple ingredients are needed to make pimento cheese, here’s where it can get complicated. Everyone has their own opinion on how to embellish their recipe. Some folks experiment with different cheeses (even cream cheese), others swear by a certain brand of mayonnaise, and some take the liberty of adding special ingredients for extra flavor or kick, be it pecans, bacon, pickle juice (seriously), shredded onion, cayenne or jalapeños. It’s all in the hands — and tastebuds — of the maker.
Vicki sticks to her family’s straightforward, old fashioned recipe, though every now and again, she’ll whip up batches of spicy pimento cheese. It can be dressed up or dressed down, depending on the occasion.
“You can make this fancy. You can take some of this cheese and put it on a fancy cracker, and put you some chutney on it and maybe some bacon bits or something like that and you’ve got a fancy hors d’oeuvre.” She also suggests spreading some on the top of a hamburger instead of a regular slice of cheese, pushing your omelet over the edge by melting some in the middle, or dropping a dollop in a big bowl of chili.
Even with all those ideas to consider, it’s hard to beat the traditional recipe for the Korner Drug-style grilled pimento cheese sandwich. Get your skillet sizzling, make sure your bread slices are buttered liberally on one side, and slather the pimento cheese on the bread. Place your bread butter-side-down in the pan, let it cook for a couple of minutes, close the sandwich, and “grill it brown, smash it down,” as Vicki says.
If your stomach is rumbling now, it’s for good reason.
In the beginning, Vicki and Wayne sold it weekly at the local farmer’s market. Now, Vicki finds it easier to sell it out of her home, where friends, family and strangers alike in Floyd County and beyond can place their order and stop by to pick it up. Thankfully, it’s never been so easy to get this comfort food staple on a regular basis.
While you’re visiting Prestonsburg, stop in for a meal at Brickhouse Kentucky restaurant, where you can try the PB & J sandwich — pimento cheese, bacon & jalapeno, of course — or the Charleston grilled Chicken sandwich topped with pimento cheese.
Or maybe it’s time to savor the flavor and take some pimento cheese with you for a travel snack. Reserve enough to share and plenty to stash away for yourself. Vicki even makes homemade pickles on occasion.
How will you know when her next batch is ready? Vicki will post: “The cheese light is on!”
Vicki Bee’s Pimento Cheese is an official Kentucky Proud food product. Visit Vicki Bee’s website to carry her pimento cheese in your store or restaurant or find her on Facebook to get the latest on where and when you can purchase a container — or two.
Vickie Bee’s Pimento Cheese
12-ounce container: $6