“…and now the eyes of my eyes are opened” e.e. cummings
I do not know what kind of cheese it was. Merely that a singular cheese ball served upon a platter was offered to famished guests one clear Christmas evening. This audacious act of stingy (according to tale) in turn fueled a growing appetite (according to me) for the re-telling of this mingy meal and just like clockwork along with stuffed stockings and bellies past full, the cheese ball story rolled out making its yearly grand appearance. I’ve tried to make sense of this story as one outside of the original scene struggles to do asking pertinent questions, viewing the situation from various vantages but always alas- eluding the point.
I wanted to know what comprised the cheese ball, a little Blue with Neufchatel or perhaps a blend of Cheddar and Swiss. Was it enormous with jolly scoops heaved out surrounded by a moat of bright seedy crackers or fist sized, tight lipped, and shunned? Was the fromage plated ceremoniously in the middle of a well polished table, diners with fork and knife in hand and silence hanging askew in the air? I fill my head up with every variation of cheese ball eating on Christmas day and still come up with satisfaction, which always leaves the story teller who understands the obvious irony of the tale just a little exasperated.
With no clarity in the actual details and only the dramatic flourish that family legends are famous for, I wisely abstained from the “why?” and the “how could they!” of the matter, focusing instead on composition, atmosphere, and shape. But I tell you some ten years later after the story reveler has come and gone- that maligned slump of curd still shadows me. Every year as I trace the hazy outlines of myth, the cheese ball glows a little brighter swiftly gaining odd momentum, even threatening to overtake the fruitcake which reigns supreme in my mind.
Its forename is unintentionally derisive, albeit truthful and to the point. It possesses neither elegant shape nor stature holding low center to the ground, rotund and spheroidal. It dons a casual coat of toasted nuts, parsley, even crushed Chex mix, occasionally livening things up with a tacked on cherry top. Shrink wrapped phosphorescent orange wedged between the jellies and the beef stick, the Hickory Farm cheese ball of the 70’s was coveted childhood prize.
This pudgy amiable cheese food harkens back to a time when things were simpler and choices fewer. It reminds me of that treasure trove of miniature goodies nestled within a paper grass filled box each item a beautiful gift waiting to be nibbled or rapaciously torn into. Instead of children we became mice, gallant princes, or far-from-home paupers, transformed in equal measure by magic and merriment. We ate Ritz crackers and onion chip dip and canned fruit cocktail with a smile, we inhaled Vienna sausages smeared on bread. There were no spun caramel creations, no turduckens, micro greens, or finishing salts- no blowtorches or advanced cooking degrees required to pull off elaborate show stopping affairs.
It is not that I don’t appreciate the latest and the greatest or sometimes covet the furthest and the widest. However mixed into the nostalgia of my childhood past is a desire for real presence more than presents*. I think I am beginning to understand why that cheese ball commanded so much attention after all these years. It sat in humble defiance to all that is fussy and expectedly over the top, oblivious to holiday gyrations that leave folks weary, bleary, and broke. Lucky to sit at the table of plenty and truthfully too much, the cheese Buddha serenely asks: "What is enough?" And after all these years, I hope to know the answer.
* Thank you V for the appropriate phrase.
Simply Cheese Ball- A quick look around and I became overwhelmed with all of the variations out there. Basic rule seems to be roughly equal parts cream cheese to hard shredded, then mix in any extras that sound appealing. While an aggressive horseradish version wins my vote, I have been flirting with the idea of Liptauer cheese for some time. Pinochle, salami, and beer anyone?
8 oz. softened cream cheese
8 oz. grated sharp cheddar (a mix of whatever you like)
2 tsp. finely chopped green onion
1 Tblsp. Prepared horseradish (to taste)
Chopped toasted walnuts/pecans
Directions: Combine everything but the nuts until well mixed. Chill mixture about an hour and then form into a ball and roll into the toasted nuts to coat. Chill again covered for about a day and serve at room temperature with assorted crackers or crisp apple slices.