Cheesemaking is a time-tested and aged art, but the process is only half of the story! The history of cheese is not quite as simple as you might think, and it can connect us back to some of the most iconic figures of the past. From politicians to pop stars, join culture intern Emily as she dives into history and learns about the cheese culture during the life and times of some of America’s most famous faces. Last week we learned about the curious connection between Wild West outlaw Jesse James and cream cheese. This week we’re discovering the connection between Public Enemy #1, Al Capone, and cheese balls.
The Roaring Twenties was a golden era characterized by color cinema, Jazz music, flapper fashion, and Prohibition. Arguably one of the least effective legislative flops in our country’s history, the early twentieth-century temperance movement was overwhelmingly unsuccessful in its attempts to cut back on crime. In fact, Prohibition laws created a breeding ground for some of America’s most notorious public enemies. The most feared of these gangsters was Al Capone, a slippery Chicago mob boss known for snuffing out rivals and selling alcohol on the black market.
During 1920s America, organized crime and alcohol went hand in hand. It is estimated that from bootlegging alone, Al Capone earned nearly $60 million a year. Selling illegal liquor to saloons and speakeasies was a huge industry in the ’20s, and despite the government’s best efforts to ban all intoxicating beverages, alcohol’s prevalence in American society was only minimally effected by Prohibition laws. In fact, it is believed that for every bar that closed when the Prohibition era started in 1919, at least six speakeasies opened in its place. While some speakeasies were little more than a hidden backroom, others were fine-dining restaurants and exclusive clubs. Some of the most famous locations still exist today, such as Manhattan’s 21 Club.
Ironically, in a time that was legally considered to be an alcoholic dry spell for the United States, the 1920s saw the popularization of cocktails. Mixed drinks were designed to mask the often overwhelming flavor of illegally distilled liquor. Additionally, an increasingly popular trend among 1920s socialites was to throw “cocktail parties,” where alcoholic beverages could be consumed in the privacy of one’s own home.
Enter the humble cheese ball. This versatile snack has been revered as a traditional party staple for decades, and many a hungry guest has mined their way through the cheese ball’s crusted outer layer and cream cheese middle. Although it’s unlikely that the 1920s was the very first time that cheese balls were enjoyed, they certainly grew in popularity during this period of the twentieth century, to the point where newspapers and magazines commonly printed recipes for cheese balls. This communal finger food was a staple at the newly trending cocktail party, where guests could enjoy light snacks in one hand and carry an illegal beverage in the other. Before the Prohibition era, bite-sized canapes were enjoyed less often than full meals at the average American dinner party. In the 1920s, however, finger foods – like the cheese ball – were favored as a sensible way for guests to enjoy their alcohol throughout an evening of partying without becoming too conspicuously sloshed.
Modern eaters might find the classic presentation of the cheese ball to be a slightly antiquated party snack. However, hidden inside that creamy ball of cheese is a party animal past that helped to make criminals out of many Americans.
Al Capone did the majority of his dirty work as a mob boss in Chicago. Despite the city’s checkered past, we still love it for many reasons – its delicious deep-dish pizza being a major one. What types of cheese do you think makes the best pizza topping, besides classic mozzarella? Share your answer in the comments section, and you can win a free issue of our latest print edition! Comments must be posted by Tuesday, October 28 to be eligible to win. Winners must be located in the continental U.S. Good luck!Photo Credit: Featured image courtesy of ourstate.com