Culinary Curiosities: The Cheese Ball
In my lifetime it’s hard to think of a family feast where there wasn’t a cheese ball present. It enjoyed pride of place on the buffet, smack dab in the center of a round platter, surrounded by a ring of Ritz crackers. Now, you may turn up your nose at the plastic-wrapped, neon-pink port wine offerings in the grocery store, but don’t underestimate the crowd-pleasing power of the cheese ball. And if you recoil from a premade version, it’s remarkably easy and satisfying to make you own from scratch.
The good Republican townsfolk of Cheshire, Massachusetts, made what could be considered the first cheese ball in 1801. It was made as a gift for the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, who had defeated the Federalist candidate John Adams. On July 20 of that year, Elder John Leland, a Baptist preacher, enjoined all the good folk of the town to contribute milk—only from good Republican cows, no Federalist milk allowed—to make a large chunk of cheese. Milk from more than 900 cows required a specially built cheese press on Elisha Brown Jr.’s farm to create a 1,235-pound cheese. It was approximately 4 feet in diameter with a 13-foot circumference and was nearly 17 inches thick.
It took almost six months to bring the cheese ball to Washington, D.C., where Elder Leland rolled the “Mammoth Cheese,” as it came to be known, across the White House lawn to the waiting president. The Mammoth Cheese created a great deal of excitement along its 500-mile journey and was written about extensively by the press. It was served in the White House for at least one year and possibly more, at major Republican functions, until, rumor has it, the worm-ridden remains were tossed into the Potomac River.
Now Hubert Fassbender of Kaukauna, Wisconsin, had a better use for leftover cheese: He packed odd bits and pieces of cheese from his father’s cheese factory into crocks and topped them off with milk, spices and a splash of alcohol. The so-called cold-pack cheese was popular at supper clubs and taverns in Wisconsin and thus was also known as club cheese or crock cheese. This method of preserving and extending cheese was familiar to Swedish and Danish immigrants, who had their own version of pot-käse, or “pot cheese.” Hubert, who also became a beer distributor after Prohibition was repealed, began to offer cold-pack cheese as a bonus to his most valued beer customers in 1933. Soon, the cheese was as popular as the beer and it wasn’t long before Kaukauna Klub Cheese, a brand of cheese ball still popular today, was born.
What we would consider the first modern cheese ball recipe appeared in print in the 1944 cookbook, Food of My Friends. Minneapolis Star Journal columnist Virginia Safford wrote the book, featuring signature recipes of her friends, including Mrs. Selmer F. Ellerton’s cheese ball. These easy, frugal appetizers were quite popular in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but eventually fell out of fashion, associated with the kitsch of these earlier decades.
In recent years the cheese ball has experienced a revival, as chefs and home cooks bring creative touches to the basic recipe. Start with a soft cheese such as cream cheese, but ricotta and chevre work well, too. Mix with a grated or crumbled cheese, spices and flavorings of your choice (such as lemon, garlic, dried fruits, etc.) and roll the firm, chilled ball in chopped nuts or herbs. But the shape need not be a simple ball or log: pinecones, turkeys and snowmen studded with nuts, pretzels and fruit are favorites, but the only limit to the cheese ball’s final form is your imagination.
If you do have bits of cheese ball leftover, don’t throw them in the river like President Jefferson. Save the scraps and use them as a sandwich spread or make a grilled cheese. Toss a chunk of cheese ball on hot pasta and you’ll have instant sauce. Add pieces of it to omelets, soups, or stuff into chicken breasts. So, the next time you encounter a cheese ball on the buffet, don’t pass it by. It’s time to embrace the delicious possibilities of the cheese ball, past present and future.