Mine was not a family that opened presents on Christmas Eve. And yet, each year, there was a thing of wonder to unwrap the minute we returned home from the
Mine was not a family that opened presents on Christmas Eve. And yet, each year, there was a thing of wonder to unwrap the minute we returned home from the Christmas Eve service, before we sat down for a late-night dinner among friends. My mother or I would pry open a corner of plastic wrapping and set free a store-bought cheese ball, as garish and glitzy as golden tinsel on a tree. We loved it: a round of bright orange cheese speckled with sliced almonds and drenched in port wine. We’d place the cheese ball on a fancy holiday platter and offer it up with so much delight that you’d have thought we’d rolled it up ourselves and gotten giddy sneaking nips off the port.
In truth, my family procured cheese balls at the local Food Lion, or maybe the Johnston County Hams shop across town. We had no brand or store loyalty (or recipe, clearly). Our allegiance has always been to the cheese ball itself. It’s indulgent (a big hunk of spreadable cheese!), and it’s playful, with endless iterations — a mix of cheddar, Swiss, cream cheese, blue cheese, and so on, rolled in whatever one fancies. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, pineapple, parsley, green onions, chipped beef, bacon, or a dusting of ranch seasoning are all fodder for a round of cheese.
Cutting into a cheese ball is thus an act of faith. You don’t know exactly what it’s made of until you’ve tasted it on a Ritz cracker by the warm glow of a Christmas tree. That’s key: You don’t eat a cheese ball on a random Tuesday. You bring out a cheese ball for an occasion, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Day.
This was Elder John Leland’s thinking in 1801, when he called upon the farmers of Cheshire, Massachusetts, to gather cheese curds from the milk of their cows on July 20 and take them to Elisha Brown Jr.’s farm. Leland’s plan was grand. With curd from an estimated 900 cows, the aid of Brown’s large cider press, and the assistance of many, Leland would fashion what some food historians have decreed the first cheese ball. Not only that, but he would then ship all 1,235 pounds of it by sled, boat, and horse-drawn wagon to present to President Thomas Jefferson on New Year’s Day of 1802. It’s said that Jefferson thanked the farmers of Cheshire for their gift, wishing them “health and prosperity, and that rivers of milk may never cease to abundantly flow in to not only themselves but their posterity.” Then someone sliced into the Mammoth Cheese and served it to the president, his cabinet, and visiting diplomats and dignitaries.
The cheese ball took up residence in a Mammoth Room at the White House and is rumored to have been eaten as late as New Year’s Day of 1803 and to still be present in March of 1804, after which point some say it was hurled into the Potomac. That would never be the case with my family. Cheese balls rarely hang around. They are the first to leave a party, eaten up before dinner hits the table or all the other hors d’oeuvres have been passed.
I know we’re not alone. In her book Deep Run Roots, Chef Vivian Howard, a fellow eastern North Carolinian, deems her cheese ball a “party magnet.” “Socially acceptable or not,” Howard writes, “when this thing is put out at a party of any kind, people hover over it like it’s a crystal ball.”
There is something clarifying about a cheese ball. It reveals a bit about the company you keep. An appetizer clad in pecans might point to home in the Carolinas. A cheese ball spiked with tons of Texas Pete could be the calling card of your aunt Judy. Or a store-bought ball like the ones my family has long procured, plain and simple, could indicate that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s never mattered much to my mother or me what’s in those shrink-wrapped cheese balls. What has mattered is what’s around it — a hodgepodge of people hovering over the orb, playing catchup on the year. It’s not long until there’s just a smudge of orange left on the holiday china and the crackers that remain are mostly broken. Pardon me for being the biggest cheeseball. But there we all are, together.
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