In defense of the ’70s-era classic.
Growing up sampling my Midwestern extended family’s culinary specialties, I learned to love dishes with a retro aesthetic. I was raised in California, land of avocados and quinoa, and visiting my Ohio relatives exposed me to such recipes as pistachio pudding salad — made with instant pistachio pudding mix, canned crushed pineapple, and Cool Whip — and “Pineapple Dessert,” a gelatinous concoction of soggy Nilla wafers, whipped cream, and, again, canned crushed pineapple. (Canned crushed pineapple was a recurring star, as was jello.)
Another snack in this universe of soft and dairy-heavy party foods: the cheese ball, a blend of cream cheese, shredded cheese, and herbs or spices, molded into a sphere and then rolled in ground nuts. A spread or dip for crackers or crudités rather than “cheese” in its own right, this mixture graced many a 1970s-era gathering, but has since fallen out of favor.
It’s time to bring back the cheese ball.
Cheese balls have acquired an undeniable patina of uncool. “Nut-crusted and filled with mysterious cheeses and bits of vegetable,” food writer Amanda Hesser observed in the New York Times in 2003, “cheese balls tend to be associated with shag rugs and tinsel, symbols of the middle-class middlebrow.”
Like shag rugs and tinsel, the food trends of the 1970s are now widely considered antithetical to Good Taste. But as with many targets of cultural disgust, our collective aversion to foods like aspic salad and ham and bananas hollandaise has now morphed into a sort of ironic fascination, even admiration. See, for example, Anna Pallai’s popular Twitter account 70s Dinner Party, which chronicles some of the most stupefying kitchen creations to emerge from the disco decade (and which also gave rise to a book, 70s Dinner Party). One featured recipe calls for the chef to cut “sausages into small pieces and mix with peanut butter, mayonnaise and a good meat sauce,” then layer this unholy union “over either toast or plain buttered bread.” (“Make lots of this spread, because it will go awfully fast,” the recipe concluded. Copy that!)
Cheese balls are not so extreme. They may be kitschy, but made well, they are also very good. They are not asking for a spot on your cheese board alongside the chèvre and Comté; that’s the wrong way to think of them. We’re talking about a spread here, a gooey, cream-cheesy spread for crostini and celery and whatever else is more fun when it’s lathered in lactose — a small, caloric tribute to the flamboyant menus of yore.
What’s more, cheese balls are an empty stage for the accoutrements that speak to you. Not keen on cheddar? Sub in feta and throw in chopped olives and green onion for a Mediterranean twist. Go Italian with shredded parmesan and mozzarella, add heat with diced jalapeños, or even craft a pineapple cheese ball with — did you see this one coming? — canned crushed pineapple. (Coat that bad boy in shredded coconut and chopped almonds for a not-so-authentic taste of the tropics.) If you don’t even like cream cheese, you can get away with food-processing grated cheese and unsalted butter into oblivion and shaping this mixture into balls that you have every right to call “cheese balls.”
The point is that the cheese ball is a flexible, playful, and infinitely customizable addition to your holiday table, and it deserves another shot at entertaining glory. The leftover cheese in your fridge needs a purpose; your pita chips need a partner in crime; and your guests are looking for some good old-fashioned indulgence. The cheese ball is here for all of them.