1950’s Era Cheeseball

The great Cheeseball experiment of 2014 continues as I work my way through a series of taste artifacts on Food Timeline’s Christmas Food list.

1899_Cheese balls served hot with salads,The Fried Cheeseballs of 1899 were mediocre, but the concept could be updated to be quite delicious. I’m already scheming for a party appetizer for New Year’s Eve.

The 1940 James Beard hors d’oeuvre recipe for a Roquefort-Butter combo rolled in parsley fell a little flat, but was certainly rich.

I would have preferred it slathered on some crusty bread or melted over some lightly steamed green beans more than in a dense mouthful of cheese intensity. Plus, the Roquefort was better off on its own.

Perhaps the test I was dreading most was the 1950 Cheeseball, complete with the trendy “cold pack,” or Club cheese of the era – see this awesome flashback from Tillamook Creamery.

To my fine cheese-loving soul, it was only a short jump between cold pack and the reviled, shelf stable “cheese in a can” that represented all that was (and in many ways still is) wrong with the American ‘food’ system.

But, with cold pack cheese spread, it was a little different. Believe it or not, I have some cherished food memories related to cold pack cheese. There. I said it.

It’s decidedly NOT because of the flavor. I somehow “understood” even then, before I could grasp the concept – that this was not real cheese in the way that say, my childhood favorite, Cracker Barrel Havarti was. I was a sucker for that blue foil wrapper. And it was definitely not special like the store-made string cheese and fresh ricotta from Calandra’s Cheese that we’d trek all the way up to Nazareth for.

It was just different. Common. Not bad. Not really good, either.

Like so many of those cherished foods from childhood: jello salad, ambrosia and all those trashy but tasty foods – they were special because they only showed up once a year.

Mimi & Grandad, 1954

My grandparents, Fred and Irene Bonney, at a Holiday soiree in 1954.

So, what’s the deal with cold pack?

It was the one and only thing my grandfather would prepare for himself – mixing equal parts of Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Kaukauna Port Wine and packing it into the little brown crock.

I’m not sure that I ever saw my more gourmet grandmother ever make or eat it, yet it was always there in the fridge.

Every night before bed, grandad would grab his Waverly Wafers, that cheese crock and a Cutty Sark on the rocks to wash it down. “Crock Cheese” was often an afterschool snack for me and I felt very grown up eating it.

The addition of the cream cheese vastly improved the texture of the cold pack spread and probably “stretched” it, something my thrifty yet elegant grandmother would have approved of. I enjoyed it with celery.

When I began my quest to uncover the history of the cheeseball, it was an evolutionary growth of sorts. I had a strong, viseral reaction to the idea of “cheeseballs”. They’re not very good, yet they sell like crazy.

A few years back when my friends at Cheese & Champagne hosted the Cheeseball Invitational I got over my cheeseball snobbery and developed an upscale version of the old standby.

Holiday Cheeseball with Goat Cheese & BaconThe Holiday Cheese Ball with Goat Cheese & Bacon was created and it still is darn tasty after many a holiday potluck.

But this was different. Cold pack cheese – the cheese snob in me was screaming out as I searched the aisles. I wasn’t sure where I’d find it, nor where to look. The only brand they carried was Merk’s but the texture and flavor were almost identical to what I remember.

It was a little personal victory when my 10 year old looked at me, incredulous – “Is that even real food?” – as I popped the seal. Clearly, I’ve never hidden my disdain for that just-shy-of-natural taste.

Ever since a particular pot-enhanced moment of clarity with Cool-Whip in my early 20’s – that fluffy, sweet and oddly compelling first taste followed quickly by an oily, metallic finish that was just… well… wrong. It was so clear just how FAKE and NOT like the real thing it was. Since then, I just can’t enjoy any food that has that strange, synthetic vibe.

Holiday #CheeseballSuch is my experience of cold pack. It just tastes unnatural. The grainy texture, the bright orange color, just doesn’t do it for me. I can understand why it’s appealing to some, I guess – the flavors were designed that way.

I didn’t have high hopes for “Mrs Rockwell’s Cheddar Cheese Balls” taken from the lifestyle section of the Los Angles Times, May 14, 1950. A combination of butter, cold pack cheddar and flour combined into a pastry like texture, rolled and then baked in a “hot” oven.

The first attempt resulted in oily pools surrounding the gelatinous looking orbs. The flavor was, as expected, mild and rather strange and the texture gummy.

I was about to write it off as another failure when I thought, hmm, maybe with a bit more cooking at a higher temperature. Who knows what a “hot” oven is these days, anyway?

Raising the temp to 400 degrees and cooking a bit longer until the outside was crusty improved things dramatically. The fake flavor cooked off, there was a nice texture to the outside and the inside was moist and fluffy.

While I won’t be making them again with cold pack, the concept is intriguing and I’ll be revising the recipe with naturally aged cheese. Stay tuned.

1950's Cheeseball

Still to come in the series – the fried “Cheese Puff Ball” from 1967 – which sounds surprisingly good. The series will wrap with the slightly terrifying 1980’s “Party Cheese Ball” which calls for 2 tablespoons of Almond Flavoring and Granola?!?

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