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.