BY JEN HUNHOLZ | PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT HAAS
When Martha Davis Kipcak moved to Wisconsin in 1998, she scoured Milwaukee grocery stores in search of her favorite snack. But her efforts were to no avail — there was simply no pimento cheese anywhere.
“I remember calling home to relatives in Texas, saying ‘There’s no pimento cheese in the grocery store,’ and my family would say, ‘Oh yes there is. You’re just kidding,’” Kipcak recalls.
But she wasn’t kidding. Milwaukee and the others areas of Southeastern Wisconsin where she looked didn’t carry this Southern staple. Pimento cheese, which is a blend of shredded cheese, mayonnaise and peppers, is common in the South, and most Southern grocery stores carry as many brands of it as you’d find peanut butter. Kipcak, who comes from a family of good cooks, had to make do with making her own, and she often gave jars of her special cheese spread to friends in town, who became addicted to it.
After divorcing the man who brought her to Wisconsin, Kipcak had to figure out how to support her three children. “I had a small catering business and had worked in advocacy about sustainable food issues,” she says. In 2012, she started making Martha’s Pimento Cheese as a side business. Her creamy cheese spread — made with Clock Shadow white cheddar, mayo and pimento peppers — hit the market in November 2012.
In 2013, Martha’s Pimento Cheese took top honors in the pimento cheese category at the American Cheese Society competition, and Martha’s Pimento with Jalapeños took second place. “It was like an independent film winning an Oscar,” she says.
Today, more people in Wisconsin, and especially Milwaukee, where she makes her cheese, are familiar with the Southern favorite. She now makes and sells her cheese full time, and she has three part-time employees.
Kipcak is still involved in sustainable food issues, and she works with the Milwaukee Food Council. “Food for me has not only been a tool for surviving, but thriving,” she says. “I really have a passion for feeding oneself and helping others learn how to do that, too.”
Part of that education is helping people to use her pimento cheese. In the South, pimento cheese spread between two pieces of bread is a common sandwich. “You’ll find it everywhere, from gas stations to bistros,” she says.
Here it can be used in sandwiches, added to pasta, tossed on top of baked potatoes, added to mac ’n cheese, and even stuffed into mushrooms or tomatoes as appetizers. It can be spread on crackers, added to grits and topped on pizzas. “I’ve been known to eat it straight,” Kipcak admits.
She’s also expanded her line to include a Martha’s Pimento Cheese with Chile de Arbol. “So I now have mild (regular), medium (jalapeño) and hot (chile de árbol),” she says. “Chile de árbol is common in Mexican food, and it’s more like a cayenne pepper. But it’s not anywhere near as hot as habañero or ghost peppers.”
Though she scored big in 2013’s ACS awards, she didn’t participate in 2014 because she was too busy getting ready for her wedding. In fact, her romance is, well, a bit cheesy. Charles “Bud” Brummit was “the big brother of a dear friend of mine,” and one day, he called her. “He asked me, ‘Can I help you make your cheese?’” Kipcak says. Brummit did help her make cheese, and it was love at first cheese over the vats. “I think that makes for a good story,” she says. “He’s a wonderful man, and I’m super happy.”
Her cheese is sold locally at more than a dozen stores, including Larry’s Market, Grasch Foods and Metro Market. It’s also available at Clock Shadow Creamery, where she still makes it, and online at www.mightyfinefood.us.
Since her win in 2013, Martha’s Pimento Cheese is now distributed throughout Wisconsin and Illinois, and just recently, a chain of specialty grocery stores in Louisiana started carrying it.
Though you can often find Kipcak at the creamery or out in stores doing tastings, you can find her at CheeseTopia on April 12 at the Pritzlaff Building, where cheese expert Jeanne Carpenter is bringing in 50 Great Lakes cheese-makers. Learn more at cheeseunderground.blogspot.com/2014/10/cheesetopia-bringing-artisan-cheese-to.html.