A love letter to the lurid, luscious snack that has brought decades of pleasure to holiday parties.

By Kat Kinsman
Updated December 30, 2019
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Credit: Sarah Crowder

I'm well into my 40s, know my Mimolette from my Morbier, and like to think that I'm confident and unapologetic in the things I love. But when a friend made fun of me for putting out a store-bought port wine cheese ball with our cocktails a few years ago, it unexpectedly stung. Partly because wow, that's rude, but mostly because my inner 10-year-old self felt as if she'd been shoved into a mud puddle while wearing her nicest party dress. Some notions of taste knit into your psyche early on and there's no reason for anyone to dissuade you from them unless you're unknowingly participating in a group's oppression, or supporting someone who's since been revealed as a crumb bum, or—apparently—your friend just feels like being a haughty jerk.

But the truth is that while my pride was stung, not a syllable of his argument about port wine cheese being declasse was going to unravel my decades-strong devotion to this lurid, nut-crusted orb of spreadable cold-pack cheese. It's not just that it reliably tastes like a million bucks; it makes me feel like I've got that much to spend on my own frivolous pleasure.

We all grow up with different metrics for fanciness. Some kids might understand private jet jaunts to I dunno, let's say Montenegro (yes, I did just Google "where do rich people go"), as their birthright. Plenty more fantasize about a day when they might stroll into a supermarket and fill their basket with name-brand cereal, soda, candy, or chips—not even giving a passing glance to the price card on the shelf. My first-generation Italian-American grandfather (who lived through the Great Depression) helped my parents buy their first car, but made them forgo the built-in radio because no one needs to throw away money on an extravagance like that. This kind of frugality weaves into the core of who you are and what you think you deserve—whether or not that's actually true. But at some point in grade school, I found a loophole.

In the early days of the company where my dad worked, the scale was small enough that the wife of the owner packed and distributed a basket of holiday treats to the family of each employee every year—mostly things we'd never think to get for ourselves, but were delighted to have (except for the canned yams). As the operation expanded, that became untenable and one Christmas, my dad came home with a Kroger gift certificate instead, and oh holy night, he told my mother and sister and me that we could each pick out something special. As an avid scholar of the Hickory Farms and Fingerhut catalogs that showed up on what seemed like a weekly basis despite our never ordering anything, I felt uniquely suited to make a "gourmet" selection from the aisles of our supermarket. If cheese was fancy, and wine was fancy, what could be more sophisticated than a melding of them, especially if it was spread generously across a Ritz? And I'd share, of course. You can't be the swankiest fifth grader in your Kentucky suburb without a little noblesse oblige; that'd just be tacky.

As it turned out, the port-wine cheese ball (technically a "cheese food" rather than a cheese, but bah humbug) is savory, nutty, and delicious, and if any of the adults in my orbit caught on to my annual ham-handed attempt at poshness, they were kind enough to indulge me. More likely, they just thought "hey, our weird kid really likes cheese, and it's nice that she shares" but the upshot is that a store-bought port wine cheese ball, girded in chopped almonds and as violently hued as a Ft. Lauderdale sunset, will be forever fixed in my mind as one of life's richest pleasures. Yes, I could lovingly craft my own from scraps of artisanal this and that, and it would no doubt impress my holiday guests and such, but it wouldn't glow quite as brightly, boast quite the same Plasticine heft, or coat the roof of my mouth as luxuriously, reminding me with each swipe of my tongue that I can afford my own happiness. It might sound cheesy, but you can just keep that to yourself.