Cheese Ball History | culture: the word on cheese
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Cheese Ball History

What do culture: the word on cheese, Thomas Jefferson, and Amy Sedaris have in common? Cheese balls.

Once something like the black sheep of the cheese family, cheese balls are making their comeback as the playful party snack. Soft cheese is molded into a ball shape and adorned with different seeds, nuts or dried fruit. Sweet or savory, the options are never ending.

The first cheese ball, however, was of grander proportions. In the early 1800s, Elder John Leland of Cheshire, Massachusetts crafted a cheese ball that weighed a hefty 1,235 pounds. According to legend, the Baptist community of Cheshire donated milk from over 900 cows to make enough cheese for this ball known as “The Mammoth Cheese.” Preaching along the way, he transported the ball by wagon and then rolled it across the White House lawn to serve it to President Thomas Jefferson to show his Republican patriotism and appreciation for religious liberty.

Leland announced to the president that the cheese was made without the help of slaves. Though stories vary about what happened to the cheese, the most popular tale is that it was displayed at the White House for two years and served at various Republican party functions before being tossed into the Potomac River. A monument resembling an old-fashioned cheese press was later built to commemorate the gift and continues to sit in Cheshire today.

The adaptable appetizer resurfaced publicly in 1944 while women were throwing modest parties during wartime. The cheese ball had a place in this for its versatility. Columnist for the Minneapolis Star Virginia Safford profiled women in Minneapolis for her book, Food of My Friends. Safford told food stories by describing each hostess and their signature dish. Mrs. Selmber E. Ellertson inspired the cheese ball entry.

Later, in 2002 comedian and cheese ball enthusiast Amy Sedaris wrote a play with her brother, David Sedaris, named The Book of Liz. The story follows a woman who makes traditional and smoky cheese balls that sustain her religious community, “Clusterhaven.”

In 2007, Sedaris showed Martha Stewart and her live television audience how to make her favorite smoky cheese ball.

“First of all what’s great about a cheese ball is that you can stretch it, so if you’re on a budget – let’s say you’re having a party on Monday, then what you can do is you can also entertain on Tuesday or Wednesday by just saving the ball and reshaping it,” she said.

“Oh, like recycling,” Stewart replied.

Like Stewart, the cheese ball serves up sass for any occasion. Take it from cookbook author Michelle Buffardi who wrote Great Balls of Cheese. In her book, Buffardi gave ideas for a contemporary take on the cheese ball with inventive recipes for making everything from owls to footballs out of cheese. For any occasion, there is a cheese ball.


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Dakota Mackey

Dakota Mackey graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in food writing through Fairhaven College. Dakota began as a journalism major, however she spent her time class dreaming up her ideal dinner for that night and making fantasy grocery lists. Before she knew it, Dakota was creating her own major and writing about food. Dakota now lives in Seattle, baking for a living and coming home to write.