People often ask me: “How did an orthodontist become a cheese lady?”, “Who is Emmy?” and “Why is your company called MyThreeSons?”. Those questions and many more are answered by my story, which begins when my family moved to Tallassee, Alabama when I was 10. On the first day of fourth grade, my wonderful teacher, Mrs. Marie Emfinger, introduced me to her niece, Susan. Susan and I quickly became (and remain) best friends. Susan is the most generous person I know, and her friendship came with one major perk: She shared her family with me. It was through Susan that I met and instantly loved her parents, Linda and Lloyd Frank Emfinger. I call them “Emmy” and “Mr. E.” The Emfingers became like a second family to me, and Emmy is the person in my life who has always been there for me.
To know Emmy is to love her. When I think of her I think of unconditional love, warmth, laughter, beauty, strength, intelligence and endless positive energy. One of Emmy’s greatest attributes is her ability to cook and entertain. Simply put, she is amazing. From mashed potatoes to collard greens, roast turkey to black-eyed peas, pound cake to sweet tea, if it’s Southern, no one prepares it better than she. (I am tempted to write “no one prepares it better than her,” but Emmy would be displeased. She has a thing about grammar.)
I have enjoyed every single morsel of Emmy’s food, but there is nothing I have loved more, or eaten more of, than her famous pimento cheese. I once tried to calculate how much of her pimento cheese I had eaten over the course of my life. The number exceeded my body weight, so I stopped calculating. After high school, I left Tallassee to attend the University of Alabama, where I went through major pimento cheese AND Emmy withdrawals. Without fail, every time I came home to visit, Emmy had a big bowl of pimento cheese waiting for me in the fridge. When I arrived, it became our routine to greet each other and have a quick catch-up, and then came the words I loved to hear: “It’s in the fridge, sweet” (Emmy calls everyone “sweet”). So the feast would begin: pimento cheese and crackers for a snack, a pimento cheese and tomato sandwich for dinner, another pimento cheese snack before bed and, upon waking, bacon and pimento cheese toast for breakfast. The pimento cheese was delicious, but what accompanied it was the best part--time spent with Emmy, Mr. E and the whole Emfinger family. With every bite, Emmy would entertain me with tales of the latest happenings in her life, and she and Mr. E often gave me excellent advice and tips. I was always captivated by Emmy. To enjoy someone’s company that much, they either have an amazing personality or they are completely adored. With Emmy, it’s always been both.
After college, I moved to Chapel Hill, N.C. for seven years to attend dental school and complete an orthodontic residency at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry. (An aside for you Carolina fans: I was the Ram, Carolina’s mascot. Go Heels!) During this time I got married and had my first son, William. I moved to Greensboro, N.C. to establish an orthodontic practice and was blessed with two more sons, John and Michael. While I was living in North Carolina, Emmy and her pimento cheese were no longer a few hours away, so she shared her recipe with me. I had to translate “a little of this and a pinch of that,” but after a few tries, I created my own special version. For years, I made the pimento cheese for friends and family. As life got busier, I found myself in the kitchen very late at night wishing I were asleep instead of grating cheese. It was during one of those moments that I began thinking, “I wish I could just buy Emmy’s cheese in the grocery store,” and “One of these days when I have time, I am going to sell it in the grocery store for all those people with busy lives like mine.” So began what I refer to as my “pimento cheese factory fantasy.” I talked about it to my boys so much over the years that it became a bit of a joke. As the boys would laugh, I would always say, “OK, you just wait, we’ll have a little factory, and we can all work there.”
Before I knew it, 15 years had passed. During that time, I encountered, as we all do, a few bumps and detours in life. After years of struggling with back problems that often accompany a career in dentistry, my retirement came earlier than I would have liked. Happily, during that time, I married my second husband, Mark Barnett (for all you motocross fans, yes, this is “The Bomber”). Retiring and starting a new life was challenging. It seemed like everything in my life had changed, but there was one obvious constant: the love and support of my husband and sons, my friends, my mother (my father had passed), and of course, Emmy. In hindsight, I am grateful for this part of my life. I had a great deal of time to think, and many things became crystal clear. I was very fortunate that I could retire and sell my practice. After a very short period of moping, I gained enormous strength from my upbringing. My parents, Walter Mitchell and Anne McKinnon, had instilled in me a never-give-up attitude that kicked in. I realized that my retirement was a much-needed opportunity to address my health, increase the time I spend with loved ones and do things I previously never had time to do. After about a year of healing, I did all that. I spent more time with my family and friends, read, cooked, learned to knit, took oil-painting lessons and even had time to clean out all my closets.
One day, as our family gathered in the kitchen, my youngest son Michael, 9 at the time, reminded me that I had been telling him for years that we would have a pimento cheese business together. I was about to spout my usual “I don’t know if we have time for that” when my middle son John said, “You’ve been talking about your pimento cheese factory since I was born, and I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.” William, my oldest, agreed and I realized they were right. I had always wanted to do this, I had been talking about it for years, and I FINALLY had the time. I told my husband about my 15-year pimento cheese dream. I was ecstatic when instead of laughter, I heard encouragement. And just like that MyThreeSons Gourmet was born! I never dreamed I could ever be as passionate about something else as I had been about straightening teeth, but I was wrong. I have loved every minute of my transformation from Dr. Cheryl to The Cheese Lady. MyThreeSons Gourmet Cheese Spread debuted at the Fresh Market in Greensboro, N.C. during Halloween weekend 2010. I’m a little superstitious, so I had a really good feeling because this happened to be the birth date of my beloved late grandmother. We sold out in three hours. After selling out several more times and once again staying up very late to grate cheese (with Mark and the boys helping), we hired our first employee.
When I called Emmy to share the news of our success at the Fresh Market, she was thrilled but had some shocking news. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was scheduled for surgery the following week. The tumor was most likely benign, but there was a risk that the surgery would leave her unable to taste. The day before her surgery, I drove to Alabama to be with her and hand-delivered the pimento cheese. She loved it, and I received the “Emmy Seal of Approval.” The pimento cheese was the last thing she ate before surgery. Today, in true Emmy form, she is 100 percent recovered with her taste buds intact.
I hope you enjoy our pimento cheese spread as much as our family enjoys preparing it for you! Please sign up for the newsletter at the bottom of the homepage. I’ll be sharing recipes and tips from Emmy and my family and friends. Thanks for reading our story.
The Barnett/Trentini Family
Mark, Cheryl and MyThreeSons: William, John and Michael