A 70's Christmas Party
My parents went to a lot of Christmas parties in the 70's. Weirdly, they never hosted one themselves, but if there was an invite to one, they were there. Luckily for me, many of these events were open to the whole family and us kids got to attend. Sure, we'd all end up in someone's game room listening to music, playing ping pong or watching stupid TV while the parents took over the kitchen and living room to drink, gossip and yes, smoke. It was the 70's and that was still kind of a cool thing to do. Plus you know, NC and all, it seemed like a requirement if you lived there to have smoked at one point in your life.
The families hosting varied along with the houses, decorations and kids in attendance and my memories of many of these specifics have gotten cloudy over the years. But what has always stuck with me was the food served. Sure, it ran the gamut also, but you could always rely on some specific things to always be there. Those weird little pecan finger things which were technically a sweet treat since they were covered in powdered sugar, but for whatever reason, I thought they were the worst dessert you could ever eat--messy, dry and not very tasty. Over the years I can't say I've ever gotten an appreciation for them either. Another was the sausage cheese ball. I feel I had every variation of it from with to without sausage, spicy, not spicy, bready, more meat, less cheese, whatever who made them fancied at the time. I sort of had a love hate taste relationship with them as, unlike the pecan things, they varied so much I never knew what I was gonna get.
After those two it always seems like mishmash of hors d'oeuvres recipes someone found in a magazine or saw on a cooking show that they just needed to try, then test on the rest of us at a holiday party. In the end though, the items I remember the most and the ones I chowed down on heartily was the true holy triumvirate combo of Hickory Farms Beef Summer Sausage, a cheese ball covered in nuts and sweet hot mustard. Nothing really says Christmas party food in my mind quite like these.
The cheese ball you always had to get separately and you could also get the mustard and sausage as one offs at the grocery too. But if you were lucky you had gotten a Hickory Farms gift box that included both mustard and sausage. These usually came from your distant relatives since back then, that was a sure sign of a classy Christmas gift in the South! Or more likely, one of your parents got it from a co-worker at the office present swap. My folks might have rolled their eyes, but I thought they were great, right down to those strawberry hard candies with the liquid centers. As a kid you think, so cool, as an adult you think, so gross, I can't believe I ate those things. Luckily, you can still all three of these things your local grocery to this day.
The cheese ball was always covered in almond slivers and either of the sharp cheddar variety or the weird one with port wine mixed in. While I would usually eat that one, the odd pink/purple color of the cheese kind of threw me. Except for that one year when I thought, oh wait, it's wine, let's eat it and get tipsy. Ah, the silliness of a 7-year-old. It is a soft (mostly) spreadable pasteurized sharp cheddar cheese. When I first had this I tended to be more into the mix of cheese of nuts, which now sounds weird when I type it. I would be the person who would eat the outside with all the nuts first as the cheese seemed to too harsh and tangy without them. Fortunately, my palate got better as I aged too so I could appreciate the flavor of cheese as well. Most times the ball would be surrounded by crackers, usually Ritz, but I mostly passed them by to create my own little bite with.....
....a little round slab of meat from the Hickory Farms Beef Summer Sausage. They actually came in either a beef variety not pork, surprising for Southerners to eat non pork sausage, who says we didn't have good taste. But if you ask me why they were summer when we were only eating them in winter, I couldn't really tell you. As a kid, I didn't care it was more like, yum processed meat! I mean we are the same people who used to eat liver pudding (scroll to the bottom of page) which we bought in the store, fried up in a pan and put on two pieces of toasted white bread with mayo, so yeah, processing was good.
The taste on these hasn't really changed over the years with it's hearty, peppery flavor, but sometimes I do actually heat it up which does bring out a bit more of the flavor. One thing to remember is "don't eat the skin." When you cut a slice it will peel off easily, much the same way you used to have to do with the bologna you buy in a long roll. See, we have a history with processed meats. Usually I found it isn't good to look too closely at the ground up filling on these, best to just cut, peel and eat.
After cutting a side of cheese and a slab of beef sausage it only needs one more thing to bring it all together and that is....
....the sweet hot mustard. Man, I loved this stuff and for the most part still do. The slightly honey sweet first bite that leads to some spicy, tangy aftertaste on the end that always made my eyes water and nose run as a kid. Still does a little bit these days, but my senses are more attuned to the kick and have adjusted for what is coming. It only takes a little of this mustard to get the flavor as it can go a long way, which is nice since it may take you awhile to go through one container. Makes the cost benefit of it worthwhile when you think about it.
Once you have each, you layer them carefully to put it all together and then you have.....
....the perfect little one bite of beef sausage, sharp cheddar cheese and sweet hot mustard. There is just enough of each one where their individual flavors come through distinctly. Spicy, cheesy and sweet. Plus, bonus, they also compliment each other in a meat, cheese and condiment kind of way. With proper proportions, one won't overwhelm the others. And even if they did, so what. One bite of this and my taste buds immediately flash to Christmas parties past and really signify holidays in my food realm.
I'm sure some of you out there are saying, what about the cracker? As I stated above, the cheese ball did usually show up in a ring of crackers and in the early years Ritz was the cracker of choice, though as people decided to "fancy" things up choices changed and could be anything from butter to sesame to, ugh, cracked wheat. As a kid I just chose to bypass them and go straight for the above bite. Hmmm, who knows, maybe I was subconsciously watching my weight as this is pretty much a total Atkins kind of thing, eschewing the carbs and going full on protein.
Everyone has their own memories of Christmas, and while I have tons of food ones, this always stands out whenever I see Hickory Farms things or cheese balls. I flash back to some of the actual fun times at neighborhood Christmas parties. Holidays tunes playing, decorations, kids running around, adults drinking and everyone eating. Food has such a past and present sensory perception for me it's probably why I continue to write this blog, now in its 7th year! And especially this year as I reflect on past fun holiday times with my late parents.
As such, since Christmas is now only four days away(!!), this will most likely be my last post till next week as me and the SO jet off to spend the holidays with their fun loving Chicago side of the fam. Everyone have a great holiday, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice and whatever you celebrate. Remember, keep eating, it will bring the good feels.