In Celebration of the Cheeseball

My grandma’s recipe for a cheeseball:

8 oz cream cheese
5 oz Old English cheese spread
1 tablespoon finely chopped yellow onion

Mix all that stuff together until you can’t distinguish the cream cheese from the Old English cheese spread. You should see no white! Then roll the whole thing in chopped walnuts. My friend, you just made a cheeseball.

For the record, my mom usually left out the onion. We decided it was gross.

In recent years, I’ve experimented with the gold standard of cheeseball recipes. I’ve thrown bacon, green onions, jalapeños, and pimentos in there. After all, cheeseballs are art, not science. Instead of covering my cheeseballs in chopped walnuts, I’ve taken to covering my cheeseballs in various meats. Because I think it’s hilarious, I make my cheeseballs look like footballs. Here are the last two cheeseballs I made:


Thanks to Don Draper and the rest of the mad men, people have taken to loving mid-century architecture and design. I’m one of those people. I love that stuff. I spend at least ten hours a day looking at tumblr accounts that just post pictures of mid-century architecture and interior design with no additional comment or context. People say I have a “time management problem,” but I’m guessing those people don’t know what a conversation pit is, so the joke’s on them.

While mid-century architecture and design is very good, the food from the same period was a nightmarish hellscape. When I look at popular dishes from the mid-20th century, I struggle to understand how any boomers are still alive. Not necessarily because the food was unhealthy–although it was, but not any unhealthier than us millennials and our insistence on putting duck and bacon in every dish and infusing it with, uh, organic, farm-to-table mint simple syrup all while we guzzle a dozen mimosas and/or local craft cocktails or beers–but because the food was so bad, I don’t know why one would want to go on living in a world where “jello salad” is a dish that is regularly served.

The two holdovers from mid-century cuisine are cocktail meatballs (the secret ingredient is grape jelly) and cheeseballs. Now, yes, those both happen to be dishes my grandma prepared around the holidays, but if you check any mid-century cuisine tumblr, you will see that people tend to agree that these two dishes are, in fact, good and not atrocities.

The reason the meatballs have survived is because you eat it and you’re like, “huh, a meatball, but is that grape jelly?” People love twist endings. Cocktail meatball are like the food-version of Westworld. The reason cheeseballs have survived is in the name of the food itself: cheese.

Cheese is so wonderful. Doctors may say it’s bad for you and that it’s “basically nothing but fat”–and indeed, a doctor did tell me that when I was four-years-old or, well, I guess he more told my parents that–but that’s also the exact reason cheese is so good. Hang on, I’m gonna list some cheese types real quick:

1. Beer cheese
2. Pimento cheese
3. Smoked gouda cheese
4. Sharp cheddar cheese
5. Kind of boring, but I’m gonna go ahead and say American cheese
6. Brie
7. Goat cheese
8. Gorgonzola cheese
9. Not really a type, but I am gonna go ahead and say Cheese tray
10. Pepper jack cheese
11. Colby jack cheese
12. Cottage cheese
13. Queso
14. Cheese curds
15. Wow, I can’t believe I’m just now thinking of Nacho cheese
16. Muenster cheese
17. Cream cheese
18. Old English cheese spread

You get the idea. Cheese is great, which is why cheeseballs are so good and beloved. And when a dish is good and beloved and its recipe is handed down from generation to generation, it becomes what we refer to as a “holiday tradition.”

Five years ago, I entered a poetry contest at my local food co-op. The contest was for a poem about a food that reminded you of the holidays. The winner received a “variety of items from the Good Foods Co-op’s specialty department.” And while I didn’t end up using that olive spread, I was really honored to be awarded for creatively expressing my love of cheeseballs. Here is that poem:

Cheeseball
By Andrew M. Berger, MA

Nothing
says “The Holidays”
like a cheeseball.

Anytime
I’m sad, I think of delicious
cheeseball
slathered on a cracker
and my day gets brighter.

Cheeseballs remind me
of fresh air
on a chilly, Fall morning

Cheeseballs remind me
of family

–2011

I’m not sure why I stopped using punctuation on those last two, uh, stanzas(?). I do, however, appreciate the Terry Gross reference in the penultimate stanza.

Anyway, if you’d like to read more about the cheeseball, The New York Times recently ran a fantastic article on cheeseballs that you can read here.

As we get older, the holidays tend to get more bittersweet, or sadder even, as time, distance, and, yes, even death, begins to separate us from our most beloved family and friends. But at least we still have cheeseballs. In fact, I’ve stopped saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” and started saying “Joyous Cheeseball!” When I do that, people smile at me in the way one smiles at a person about whom they’re vaguely concerned. But I don’t mind; mom always said God made me a little extra special.

I think that’s why she fed me all those cheese sandwiches when I was four.

Joyous Cheeseball, everyone!

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