New Year’s Day 1802, President Thomas Jefferson, just 10 months in
office, received a grand gift of support from the town of Cheshire,
Mass. It was a cheese that weighed 1,235 pounds.
Stories of its 13-foot circumference and how it
was rolled across the White House lawn to Jefferson’s waiting arms has
caused some interpreters of history to bill that “Cheshire Mammoth
Cheese” America’s first cheese ball.
The declaration is one Southerners know to be absolutely wrong.
It’s not just that the big cheese was likely a
wheel of something like cheddar painted red rather than the ball of
spreadable cheese coated in chopped pecans that Southerners claim to be
all their own. The cheese ball’s fabled Southern pedigree is not by
virtue of true history or special recipes but by the kindness and
generosity with which the globes are shared.
Cheese balls became a Biro family favorite when
the kindly lady who lived next door gave us one in the early 1970s.
Hers was a store-bought, port wine cheddar number rolled in chopped
pecans, a perennial favorite across North Carolina’s coastal plain. My
European parents, not long on the North Carolina coast by way of New
Jersey, had never seen anything like the neon-orange round streaked
From that first bite on a Ritz cracker forward, a
Christmas cheese ball was part of our holiday tradition. As a teenager,
I became the family cheese ball maker. Even now, when gourmets and top
chefs ridicule the cheese ball as a Velveeta generation relic, I brave
bringing one to even the most foodie-centric parties. Invariably, at
least one person shares a happy memory about their own holiday cheese
ball experiences, and a few people request the recipe. No matter their
disco-era reputation, cheese balls taste good.
Cheeses soft enough to spread date back at least
5,000 years, but the cheese balls we know down South started, I think,
with British potted cheeses and the German’s love of soft white
cheeses. In the late 1800s, tavern owners in America’s Midwest and
upper South mashed together one or more cheeses into paste with cream,
seasonings, beer or wine, vegetables and nuts. They laid out these
so-called “crock cheeses” on the bar for patrons to enjoy.
Mass-produced cream cheese arrived around 1873.
By 1918, Florence Kreisler Greenbaum’s “Jewish Cook Book” (Bloch
Publishing, New York) included a cheese ball recipe calling for one
cake of Neufchatel cheese, an equal portion of butter, a tablespoon of
cream, a dash of salt and six dashes of Tabasco sauce. New York-based
Greenbaum suggested forming one large ball or several small ones and
rolling them in chopped pecans.
Cheese ball recipes are easy compared to fussier
holiday favorites like cookies. Still, they are extravagant enough that
they qualified as once-a-year indulgences in days past down South.
Before household refrigeration arrived, soft cheeses would not hold for
long. Nuts were either expensive to buy or time-consuming to pick from
their shells. To share such special ingredients spiked with a fine port
amounted to an exceptional symbol of love, friendship and good will.
My cheese ball recipes vary year to year, but the
one I fall back on most often honors the cheese ball that hooked my
family all those years ago. Port wine cheese spreads available at the
supermarket don’t compare to the dried cherries I soak in good-quality
port wine and then fold into a little cream cheese and lots of
extra-sharp cheddar. Should anyone imply that my recipe is neither
authentic nor Southern, I’ll pass him or her a generous portion of that
cheese ball on a Ritz cracker and suggest they hush their mouth.
PORT CHERRYCHEESE BALL
1 cup whole dried cherries or cranberries
¼ cup good quality port wine
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
5 cups shredded extra-sharp orange cheddar
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning blend
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons good quality port wine
4 cups coarsely chopped toasted pecans
Place cherries or cranberries in a small bowl.
Pour port over cherries or cranberries. Soak, stirring occasionally for
several hours or overnight until the cherries have absorbed the port.
The cherries should be sticky. Coarsely chop cherries and set aside.
Place cream cheese and cheddar cheese in a large,
heavy bowl or the bowl of a stand-up mixer. Use a sturdy wooden spoon
or the mixer’s paddle attachment, with mixer set on medium speed, to
blend cheeses until well combined. When the mixture is smooth and pale
orange, add chili powder and Cajun seasoning and blend well again.
Gently fold in cherries and their juices plus 2 tablespoons of port
wine using a sturdy wooden spoon. Do not use the mixer for this step.
Cover the bowl and place cheese mixture in the refrigerator for about
Spread pecans on a large board. Using a large
serving spoon, scoop one-third of the cheese mixture onto the pecans.
Using your hands, roll the cheese in the nuts, forming a ball, until
cheese is coated. Shape the cheese into a ball and place in a covered
container or wrap in plastic. Place on a flat surface in the
refrigerator for several hours or overnight. Repeat with remaining
Makes three 5-inch cheese balls, each providing 8 to 10 servings.
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)