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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Cream Cheese in the 21st Century

July 12, 2016

My friend Julia Reed once said, “You would never see a naked block of cream cheese in the South. It will always be coated with one of at least three delicious things: Pikapeppa sauce, Jezebel sauce, or pepper jelly.”

Julia and I are the same age and we both grew up as children of the 1960s cocktail generation. Our parents hosted, or attended, cocktail parties almost every weekend.

In the forward to my third book, Deep South Parties, Reed stated, “My mother is a big aficionado of the cocktail supper, as are pretty much all the hostesses in the Mississippi Delta.” I think she’d been reading my mail, as that was my experience, too.

In the introduction of that same book I wrote, “My earliest memory is of a cocktail party my parents were hosting in the living room of our home on 22nd Avenue in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The year was 1965, and I was four years old. After a steady Saturday evening diet of Flipper, I Dream of Jeanie, and Get Smart, I was under the covers by 8:30 pm. I can remember lying in my bed, fully awake, hearing strange, magical, yet foreign sounds coming from the living room— the clinking of ice in glasses, laughter, excited conversation, background music, and dancing— the quiet roar of a smoky room in full bloom. It was romantic, it was mysterious, and it sounded like fun.”

It was a cocktail party smack dab in the middle of the “Cocktail Era.” In the hazy, smoke-filled living room, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole were crooning on the Hi-Fi system— a piece of wooden furniture as large as a sideboard. In the dining room a small mahogany dining table was lined with cocktail weenies, meatballs, cheese spreads, and sour cream-laced cold dips. Scattered throughout both rooms were bowlfuls of salted peanuts, plates filled with my grandmother’s bacon-wrapped crackers, and ashtrays of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

There were most certainly a couple of blocks of cream cheese on the coffee tables. At my house, one would have been topped with pepper jelly, the other with Pikapeppa. Jezebel sauce— a combination of apple jelly, pineapple preserves, dry mustard, and horseradish— was usually served with pork at our house. I have always preferred pepper jelly to the other two.

The Jamaican-inspired Pikapeppa sauce was about the most exotic thing on the shelves of my mother’s pantry in the 1960s. It even had a parrot on the label. My grandmother’s dinner party go-to was shrimp curry, so she always had a jar of curry powder. Those two items were the most interesting and out-of-the-ordinary flavors I knew as a kid growing up in South Mississippi.

We have all progressed and moved forward in our event offerings these days. I haven’t hosted a party in the last two decades that I didn’t serve raw tuna in one form or another, which would have been unheard of in the 1960s. The availability of fine cheese is much better today than it was during the cocktail era, and people’s palates are certainly more refined.

All that being said, I still serve a block of cream cheese with some type of topping when entertaining. Conversely, if I am at a party in someone else’s home I can always be found near the block of cream cheese with some type of topping on it. To me, that hors d’oeuvre is like the timeless king-of-the-finger-foods— the tomato sandwich— easy, popular, and delicious.

I usually have all of the ingredients on hand and in the refrigerator or a cabinet so it’s a quick fix for unexpected company. I’ve never used homemade pepper jelly for anything other than as a topping for cream cheese. Tabasco makes a pretty good store-bought version (red not green) if there isn’t any homemade pepper jelly lying around.

I can lay waste to a block of cream cheese topped with pepper jelly accompanied by Wheat Thins on my own— in one sitting— and I don’t need the excuse of a party to do it.

In the aforementioned book I included three cream-cheese toppings that are nice alternatives to Pickapeppa, and Jezebel sauces (it’s hard to top pepper jelly in my book). Two of the toppings— peach and blueberry— are very Southern and are perfect for this time of year. The other is an orange topping made using orange marmalade, which is something I never ate as a kid, but there always seemed to be a jar in my mother or grandmother’s refrigerator. One can substitute mayhaw or muscadine jelly in the peach topping recipe to “Southernize” it.

I have always wanted to host a cocktail party where the only food served was a smorgasbord of all six cream cheese toppings— pepper jelly, Pickapeppa, Jezebel, orange, peach, and blueberry. It would be interesting to me to see which one was eaten first. My guess is that older guests would go for Pickapeppa and/or Jezebel and younger attendees would opt for the fruit toppings.

At that party, I would be easy to spot. I’d be the guy over in the corner singing Nat King Cole and hovering over the pepper jelly.


Homemade Cream Cheese Topping Recipes from “Deep South Parties”

 1 8-ounce block cream cheese

 Peach Topping

 3 /4 cup peach preserves

1 /8 tsp cayenne pepper

1 /2 tsp crushed red pepper chili flakes

1 /4 tsp paprika

Pinch of salt

 Combine ingredients. Top cream cheese with half of the mixture. Reserve other half to pour over cream cheese as the topping is consumed.


Orange Topping

 3 /4 cup orange marmalade

1 Tbl horseradish

2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce

1 /4 tsp white pepper

1 Tbl sour cream


Combine ingredients. Top cream cheese with half of the mixture. Reserve other half to pour over cream cheese as the topping is consumed.


 Blueberry Topping

 3 /4 cup Blueberry Preserves

1 Tbl finely minced shallot

2 tsp balsamic vinegar

2 tsp cornstarch

1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

1 /8 tsp cayenne pepper


Heat preserves and shallots over medium heat until it begins to simmer. Combine vinegar with cornstarch and stir it into simmering preserves. Remove from the heat and stir in peppers. Cool completely. Top cream cheese with half of the mixture. Reserve other half to pour over cream cheese as the topping is consumed.

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