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.

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?”

Dan’s Summer Sausage

Hunters don’t make their own sausage for many reasons, but top of the list is probably because they don’t have the equipment or patience, and having a venison processor make summer sausage is expensive; a 5-pounder made locally will typically run $20, considerably more than an all-beef one would cost retail. But summer sausage requires no special equipment and little patience.

Prior to hitting the kitchen, sodium nitrate, summer sausage seasoning and casings need to be acquired. These items are not hard to find over the net, or they can be found locally at Rebel Butcher Supply in Pearl, Mississippi, costing about $8 for enough products to make 100 pounds of summer sausage. Sodium nitrate is controversial in online fora where everything is controversial, but it’s as likely to make you sick as the 4 cigars smoked over a lifetime of weddings/birth announcements are to give you lung cancer. If sodium nitrate is not used—in addition to a botulism concern—the finished product will look like over-cooked hamburger, slightly grey, with tones of brown. Sausage should be pink, and a sodium nitrate cure imparts this hue. Many online recipes eschew casings and nitrate, that’s fine, just call it dried meatloaf instead of sausage and don’t post pictures. I admit the seasoning is a compromise to someone who likes to source and mix, but if traditional summer sausage is desired, you’ll spin a lot of wheels and money to put together the seasoning. Rebel makes it up on site, and I am sure there are reliable online sources as well.

If using processed venison, be aware this method uses a 1:1 ratio of venison to pork butt. Check with the processor about this ratio; most will use 2:3 pork to venison if not instructed otherwise. This will work, but may want to increase the beef later if this is the case. Mix 4 lbs. of the venison/pork with 2 lbs. of 73% ground beef. Dissolve slightly less than a teaspoon of sodium nitrate and a tablespoon of salt (I use kosher salt that has been smoked) in a few tablespoons of water. Mix well with the meat, and pack tightly in a gallon zip top bag. I never would have thought to dissolve the cure in water, but it is the only way to distribute it thoroughly into the meat. This needs to sit up (cure) in the fridge for at least 3 days. I have been told by everyone I know that cures meat not to second guess the amount of cure—one grain too much and the batch is ruined—and this I believe. I’m also told by seasoned veterans that 5 days is optimal on the wait; but that wears on the patience (maybe this should be discussed during the safety meeting). At the end of the cure, put the meat in a cold bowl, and mix in the summer sausage seasoning. How much will depend on the way the seasoning is bought. I kept it simple as it was so cheap and bought enough to do 100 lbs. so the math was easy.

The casings are synthetic, so do not soak or salt them as you would with natural casings. Prick the casings with a needle; pricking allows moisture to escape as well as a little of that fat you don’t want causing a ring around the sausage. This method makes 3 sausages, in 3″ diameter casings; not much is lost so I guess they are close to 2 pounds apiece. Just ball the meat up and drop it in the casing. Scour the pantry and find a hot sauce, vinegar, or other similarly shaped bottle, that perfectly slides into the casing, and use it as a plunger to eradicate any gaps in the meat stuffing. It’s self-explanatory once the process is begun how to not let this happen, but if you had a proper safety meeting prior to beginning this process, it will be understood that it can’t be put into print without eliciting distracting juvenile laughter, so let’s move on to cooking.

The seasoning in this method is enough to deter me from smoking (other than the safety meeting). I add a little smoked salt to mine, and a lot of others use liquid smoke, but I can’t recommend smoking this sausage in the traditional sense–too many competing flavors. Place the links on a cooling rack, over a baking sheet at 200F for about 4 hours. I turn the sausage (to prevent flat spots) at the half way point, and also mop off the liquid that sweats out. Set the timer on the oven, and let it die to cool before taking out the sausage. Then put it in the fridge for a few days before slicing.

Devotedly,
Dan

Dan Vimes is a 1989 graduate of the Mississippi School of Math and Science.  He then entered Rensselaer Polytechic Institute in Troy, New York on a full academic scholarship, but was asked to leave after the first semester related to an on campus deer-hunting incident that involved a crossbow.  Currently residing in Pelahatchie in a 35′ Airstream, he raises guinea pigs for reptile breeders and grows hemp used in religious ceremonies.  You can contribute to Dan’s legal fund by emailing the administrator of this site.

Dixie’s Blue Cheese Dressing

This is a beautiful recipe from Dixie Grimes at the BTC Old-Fashioned Grocery, silky and salty with a hint of sweetness, a perfect showcase for your favorite Maytag or Stilton, but it is somewhat tricky. The three main ingredients are incorporated in one at a time, and they have to be added in alphabetical order: EOV; eggs, oil and vinegar. In addition, everything has to be basically the same temperature, the bowls for the mixtures, the ingredients and room temp.

2 eggs, whole
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Dash tabasco
6-8 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

In a blender whip the eggs for a minute, then slowly pour in the vegetable oil, a little at a time, until it starts to come together. Then add the vinegar in which the spices and seasonings have been whisked until it’s the right consistency. Remove from blender and crumble blue cheese into mixture.

All in a Name

Some dishes such as sauerkraut, pizza or biscuits have specific names, and others such as carrot cake, herb omelet or barbecued ribs are simply descriptive. Some are named for places as is a London broil or Boston baked beans though in some cases–particularly dishes of a French origin–a name simply specifies a certain ingredient such as spinach with a Florentine or crawfish in an à la Nantua. Some maintain that Baked Alaska was invented at Antoine’s and named in honor of an event, “Seward’s Folly”, the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867.

In the introduction to her splendid Southern Hospitality Cookbook Jackson native Winifred Cheney states that a signature dish is “a tribute in the field of cookery”, intimating such dishes as oyster Rockefeller or Melba toast, but here Winifred misinforms. A signature dish is a recipe that identifies or is directly associated with an individual chef or a particular restaurant. For instance, one could say that blackened redfish is a signature dish of Paul Prudhomme’s, or shrimp and grits that of Bill Neale’s or that oysters Rockefeller—a variation of oysters Florentine—is a signature dish of Antoine’s as barbecued shrimp is of Pascale’s Manale.

Dishes named for people, either to honor them—as in the Rockefeller, purportedly because the dish is so rich—or because they were first made for them—as is the case with Melba toast, first made by opera aficionado Auguste Escoffier for his favorite diva Nellie Melba when she was indisposed to speed her recovery (it did, so eat Melba toast the next time you have those withering faints of artistic exhaustion), don’t have a specific term of reference. They’re just recipes named for people, there are dozens upon dozens of them and more are being created all the time. Winifred herself created two dishes for her neighbor and celebrated author Eudora Welty, apples Eudora and squash Eudora, each using what Winifred says are two of Welty’s favorite foods, tart apples and yellow squash.

Winifred is notorious for recipes that are rich, with expensive, hard-to-find ingredients and take a long time to make; the most frequent critiques of The Southern Hospitality Cookbook center around how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. Such is the case with her apples Eudora, which she describes as “tart apples cooked in a delicious syrup, drained and baked in a rich custard, then filled with an apricot rum filling and topped with a dollop of whipped cream” and if that doesn’t wear you out just reading it, then preparing it is going to make you bedridden.

Then she gives us squash Eudora, which while lacking in the elegance of her apples Eudora, is certainly less tedious. The principle ingredients are yellow crookneck squash and chicken livers. Now, chicken livers, like any type of liver, aren’t for everyone; they’re one of those things you either hate or love, rather like our incumbent president. Still, you can’t make a foie gras without them, and I’ve found that liver enthusiasts tend to be among the more culinarily sophisticated. I myself like squash Eudora, and it is substantial enough to serve either as an entrée or as a heavy buffet dish. What follows is not Winifred’s recipe to the letter (for instance, she uses “dried green onions” by which she might mean chives, but I substitute with fresh green onions), but it is faithful in spirit.

Wash but do not peel two pounds tender yellow squash. Slice thinly and parboil with a pat of butter until tender. Drain and season with black pepper and salt to taste. Drain and wash a half pound (8 oz.) livers, cut into halves and sauté in butter with Worcestershire. Set aside to cool, then drain and mix with squash, about a cup of chopped green onions a teaspoon curry powder, a teaspoon celery seed, one egg lightly beaten and a half cup grated Parmesan. Put mixture in a shallow casserole and bake at 350 until mixture is firm, dust top with more Parmesan and brown. Serve with fresh summer vegetables such as tomatoes or green beans. Winifred says that you can substitute a pound of lump crabmeat for the livers, and indeed you can if your pocketbook will allow.