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.