Cheese Balls: A Political History

In any given holiday season cheese balls are unavoidable. Slapped atop one of those cutesy little carving boards that have one of those little two-pronged knives on a chain and surrounded by captain’s wafers, Ritz crackers or—at the New Year’s keg party—saltines, the cheese ball has become an entrenched feature of the American holiday buffet table. While it’s a certainty that cheese balls in the form of their predecessor, cheese spreads, predate the discovery of the New World—examples include the Slovakian Liptauer, the Bavarian Obatzda and Hungarian Körözött—cheese balls in their primitive state (solid cheese) have a uniquely American—indeed presidential—background.

The first executive cheese ball was crafted by Elder John Leland of Cheshire, Massachusetts in 1801. Purportedly the Baptist community of Cheshire donated milk from over 900 cows to make a 1,235 pound ball known as “The Mammoth Cheese.” Preaching all the way to Washington (somethings never change), he transported the ball by wagon and then rolled it across the White House lawn to serve it to President Thomas Jefferson. Rumor has it that this ball of cheese lasted for two years until Jefferson finally had the remains thrown into the Potomac. Then in 1835 dairy farmer Colonel Thomas S. Meacham of Sandy Creek, NY, crafted a titanic cheddar four feet in diameter, two feet thick and weighing nearly 1,400 pounds for then-president Andrew Jackson wrapped in a colossal belt bearing patriotic inscriptions. This cheese lasted so long that Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Beuren, had to rip out the curtains in the “cheese room” and have the walls sanded and whitewashed.

Cheese balls as we know them first appeared in 1944 when women threw modest wartime parties. A columnist for the The Minneapolis Star, Virginia Safford—who aspired to “eat her way around the world”—profiled women in Minneapolis for her book, Food of My Friends, and described a cheese ball made by a Mrs. Selmber E. Ellertson. Stafford’s follow-up book, Friends and their Food (1969), features recipes for Cheese in the Round and Cheese Rolls. The cheese ball really found its place in the 1970s, but like disco and lava lamps, eventually developed a bad rap. Writing in 2003, New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser wrote, “Cheese balls tend to be associated with shag rugs and tinsel, symbols of the middle-class middlebrow.”

What with all the artisan cheeses flooding the market, nowadays cheese balls are making somewhat of a comeback. Cheese balls are made of soft cheese often combined with grated hard cheese molded into a ball shape and coated with seeds, nuts or dried fruit. Options are endless, but most cheese balls are savory rather than sweet. Here is a classic recipe from Standing Room Only, a cookbook for entertaining published by New Stage Theatre in 1983.

1 pound cream cheese, softened,
2 tablespoons finely minced onion
1 4-oz. jar chopped mushrooms, drained
1 4-oz. jar chopped pimento, drained
1/2 cup finely chopped ripe olives
1/4 cup chopped green olives
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar
1/4 cup Worcestershire
Finely chopped nuts for coating

Mix all ingredients, chill overnight, then shape into a ball and roll in finely chopped nuts. Wrap and refrigerate overnight before serving.

Potatoes Anna

A different version of what most of us know as scalloped potatoes, this simple recipe is also known as a potato cake for obvious reasons. Most recipes will instruct you to peel the potatoes, but I don’t find this necessary, justifying my lassitude by claiming it makes for a prettier presentation. The only trick to preparation is turning the cake to brown both sides. I’m certain that there are people in the world who have the manual dexterity to flip the cake with a flick of the wrist, but I’ve yet to master this technique and instead place a lightly oiled plate over the pan, invert and slide the cake back into the pan to brown evenly.

Slice small red potatoes very thinly (having a mandolin comes in handy here, and you can find a simple one for a dozen dollars or so) and, working quickly before the potatoes discolor, arrange in layers—sprinkling with salt and pepper—in a small sauté pan with plenty of oil or melted butter. Place in a hot oven—400—until bubbling and lightly browned. Flip or turn in the method described earlier to brown evenly. Serve hot with a hard grated cheese or cold with sour cream.

Gene’s Salsa

This epic sauce is a Promethean combination of wood-fired vegetables, not some thin tomato gruel ground in that cute little molcajete you bought at a tourist trap in San Antonio. The recipe makes about a quart, and it’s great with any smoked meat. Use hickory and grill two tomatoes, six tomatillos, an onion, at least one jalapeno (all halved) and two cloves garlic; puree with a cup of chopped fresh cilantro, a tablespoon of crushed cumin, a tablespoon of salt and the juice of a lime. Serve warm.

Lawrence on Lycoris, the Red Spider-Lily

In her luminous classic A Southern Garden (1942), horticulturalist and Welty correspondent Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985) tells the story behind the red spider-lily, Lycoris radiata, one of the South’s most beloved flowering perennials.

Toward the middle of September every garden in the South is filled with the flame-like flowers of red spider-lilies, Lycoris radiata. On the first days of the month, when the bloom of phlox is done and chrysanthemums are not even showing color, the season for flowers seems to have passed. Then the naked scapes of the red lilies spring from bare ground and flower almost overnight, lighting all of the dark corners and even the waste places. In any garden where there are a few, there will soon be many, for the bulbs require shallow planting if they are to bloom, and with shallow planting they multiply rapidly. In my garden (Lawence lived in Raleigh, North Carolina jly) they have increased until they are everywhere—everywhere except in the borders, because there are few flowers of a color that is agreeable with the brilliant nopal red of the stiff long-stemmed lilies. They are most beautiful when planted to themselves, and there cannot be too many of them. The quick color that flares up suddenly as a flame burns out almost as soon. After scarcely more than two weeks they are gone.

Until recently when it was discovered that these red spider-lilies are identical with the Japanese Lycoris radiata, they were known in the South as Nerine sarniensis, the Guernsey-lily. In Herbitaria, vol. IV, Mr. Wyndham Hayward gives an account of how the mistake was at last cleared up. In North Carolina, we might have wondered before, if we thought at all about the flowers that grow in out garden, about the name nerine. For the nerine is a South African genus, and the first red spider-lilies in North Carolina (and probably in this country) came directly from Japan to a garden in New Bern. They were brought to that garden nearly a hundred years ago by Captain William Roberts who was with Commodore Perry when he opened the ports of Japan. The Captain brought three bulbs which were, his niece Mrs. Simmons says, in such a dry condition that they did not show signs of life until the War between the States. The original bulbs have increased and have been passed on until they have spread across the state. They grow as far west as Morganton but do not survive in Asheville. Maryland is the northern limits of their hardiness; near Baltimore they sometimes survive and bloom in sheltered places. The best time to divide the bulbs is after the foliage dies down in spring.

An Interview with Jack Myers

Jack Myers stood at the forefront of gay rights in Mississippi for over fifty years, running a series of gay bars and clubs in the capital city of Jackson. In this interview Myers talks about the many places he ran and shares his memories of others.

This all started back when I was in high school, we’re talking 1962-63. I finished radiology school, lived in Memphis for a while, lived in Eupora for a while, worked at the state hospital and at the VA. While I was at the VA they sent me to Duke for a year for in-service training, and was hoping for a position in Jackson, but they never got the position open, and I gave them 30 days to decide if they were going to give me more money, but they just kept putting it off, so I left after 30 days.

The first gay bar I can recall going to was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. You go down here and you turn on Mayes Street, Cowboy Malone’s used to be right there by the tracks, and there’s a little bitty building on the other side of the track and it was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. As a matter of fact, I had my 21st birthday there. I worked there when I was… it was in ’60-something. I was in X-ray school at UMC at the time. There have always been clubs in Jackson that weren’t openly gay but where gay people were welcome. I remember T.C. Schilling, one of the first people I met when I came out here, he used to own Jackson Commercial College, and he talks of some places that he used to go and one was down there on West Capitol Street, and there was a place off Robinson Road, you know where East Ford used to be? Where Robinson Road crosses Hwy. 80? If you leave here and go out Robinson Road you’ll cross Ellis Avenue, and right before you get to Hwy. 80 on the left facing Hwy. 80 used to be East Ford. You get behind the Ford place and you turn right, there’s a long road that goes through there, and he said he used to go to a place, there was a woman that had a bar out there. He said she’d take up for the gays in a minute, wouldn’t let anybody bother anybody. And there’s a lot of (gay) people I know used to go to the Walthall Hotel downtown. That was in the ‘60s.

I worked at the Sportsman’s Lounge, then he closed that bar and opened a place on McDowell Road where the police shooting range is now. That was all wooded then, it had a drive that went up to this big old house; it was called the Mansion. The guy lived upstairs, and one side of the downstairs was the bar. And if the sheriff’s department or the police came by and two guys and two girls were dancing, they’d just switch partners.

I know when I first came out, on Woodrow Wilson, where you take a left and get on Bailey Avenue, they took several old houses and made them into businesses and there was a place called Chez Pierre’s that was gay-friendly. The Glass Kitchen on Five Points was a popular restaurant. When I was in school at UMC from ’64-66 all of us who were in school would go to Delta Drive because they’d taken a lot of old houses up there and turned them into bars and they had bands, you took your own bottle, they only sold beer. There was the Pepper Mint Twist Lounge, the Hilltop A-Go-Go, the Sirloin Room; the Sirloin Room always had this great band called the Poppas.

I can’t remember the exact year I opened my first bar, but it was in the early ‘70s. It was on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King Drive. And I moved from there downtown to the old Wagon Wheel which was on Capitol and Farish Streets upstairs. The entrance was on Farish. Then we bought the old Amite Theatre. It was behind Jack’s Saloon, it was on the corner of Amite and Roach; they were back-to-back. There was a Dr. Wade Windham who opened a bar there, a straight bar called the City Dump, I think it was. They took old cars and made benches and booths out of them. We sold them all for scraps. We completely remodeled it.

Bill’s Disco (black bar) was on the corner of Amite and Mill Streets there by the train station. It was called the Interchange when we had it. I’m thinking that when the old theatre burned we moved there and called it the Interchange and Bill Rimes ran it for us… well, the old theatre was called Bill’s Disco and it burned in 80-something. And then we moved on the corner across the street to that small building, opened it was the Interchange on Amite. They tore the old Amite Street Theatre down and built that monstrosity in the back; I can’t remember what it’s called (This is the catty-corner building on the corner of Roach and Amite.)

The dance bar on Capitol was Jack and Jill’s. It wasn’t the first bar; it was the first big dance bar. I don’t know if it was this article (in a local paper), but there was also one in the Washington Post that quoted me as saying that I had the first (gay) bar in Jackson, and no, I didn’t. There were bars years before I had one here. There was a girl bar where Amite Street gets to Capitol and crosses Capitol and turns into Robinson Road. I’m thinking that’s where it was. The road that goes by the train station, Amite, comes in (at an angle) there and crosses Capitol. There’s a little bar that sits there, there’s a parking lot out front. There’s been a bar there for years, but there was a girl that had it for a while. Her name was Polly Wilmer. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in years and Harry and I went by the Waffle House to get something to eat and this girl came by and said, “Are you Jack Myers?” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, this is Polly Wilmer,” she said. Oh, my God, I hadn’t seen her in years, and she’d gotten big, huge and she used to be a little tiny thing. We talked for a while; she used to have that bar, it was on Robinson Road, I think, used to be a Waffle House or something that sat right in here. It wasn’t Mississippi Street.

When I first opened Mae’s Cabaret on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King, we got some hassle from the police. I was working at the Raincheck on Northside Drive; going west on Northside drive, you cross over the train tracks and as soon as you crossed over the tracks you took a left and there used to be a brickyard there. The only thing left there was an office; it was very small. It had a nice-sized room in the front, and a nice-sized room in the back, but to get to the back, you had to go through a hallway where the bathrooms were. And then you had the back room, where people could dance. When the police came in, the lady who ran the door would push a button under the desk and a light would flash and everybody would know to sit down. Because in order to have a dance license, you had to have an emergency exit off the dance floor, and there wasn’t a door back there. But one of the policemen said something to Doris about, “We know you have that light,” and she said, “I’m not worried about having a door back there, you know, trying to hem in a queen… (laughter).”

Doris wanted me and her to go into business, I worked with her for a long time, she wanted to open up a bigger place. I think I got a mortgage on my house; I had it paid for. So we opened up the place (Capitol and Farish?), and the police chief said, “The only thing I ask, you know, it’s fine having the show, but I want someone from vice and narcotics to come see the show.” And he did. It was Officer Fitzgerald. After that was over, he said, “Man, I don’t see anything wrong with these shows.” And I said, “Well, I did the right thing, paid the first people off when you told me not to have a show, and sent them back to Atlanta, but it’s not a strip show.” He said, “Well, I see that now, but somebody told us you were going to have a strip show.” That’s when we saw the chief and he said if the church could have their womanless wedding, then we could have a drag show.

 

 
When we had the old Amite Theatre downtown, we had a bunch in a pickup came by, they did not get out, just came by yelling stuff out to us. That’s the only incident we ever had like that. We always had off-duty city policemen working for us. Just a uniform; they could wear their uniforms. 95% of our protection was just them being at the bar. If you had an off-duty policeman working for you, you had to carry liability insurance and name the Jackson police department on that policy. That’s how you got to hire them. If you’re going to use a policeman, they want their ass covered. It wasn’t that expensive. It either paid a half a million or a million.

(In Jack’s bars) Momma and Daddy ran the door. And if Momma didn’t recognize you, the first thing she’d say was, “This is a gay bar, you’re welcome, and if you don’t like it or whatever, you can leave. If you cause trouble, we have a policeman here.” If it was someone (like a public figure) who might be looking around to see what was going on, she’d tell them not to be nervous, to come on in. Well-known people who were on the make’d go to New Orleans or somewhere like that where nobody could see them. People would come to me all the time and say, “I saw So-and-so (in this gay bar) in New Orleans.” They couldn’t come out up here but they could down there.

A Fine Distinction

“Yancy, you’re an idiot. This is very simple. If you grind dry roasted peanuts with grease and salt, you get peanut butter; if you puree boiled peanuts with oil, you get redneck hummus. Imagine me, a shit-kicker from Opelousas, having to teach Mississippi’s go-to bubba on white trash food the difference.”

“Billy Dale, I have never as long as I’ve drawn breath ever claimed to be an authority in Southern foodways of any stripe, I’m just trying to find out as much as I can by cautious questioning.”

“You’re a pompous asshole, too,” Dale said. “My wife said you remind her of an alcoholic Sunday school teacher she had in Iuka.”

“B.D., let me off the hook, okay? My sins and errors have never been a good party topic for me.”

“Fine,” Dale said. “Go turn the chicken and get me another beer.”

“What chicken?”