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Robert St. John

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

For the Love of Cream Cheese

October 31, 2018

This past weekend, we hosted a small gathering of friends. My wife had worked hard to prepare several dips, spreads, and hors-d’oeuvres for the group to go along with the alcoholic punches she conjures up for such occasions. In the middle of the party, I walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a block of cream cheese, spread some pepper jelly on it, and placed some Wheat Thins on the side of the plate. It was gone in a matter of minutes.

A block of cream cheese with pepper jelly on it is not safe around me. Seriously, I can lay waste to that old-school cocktail party classic in a matter of minutes. To me, it is the timeless party offering, and it never gets old.

Cream cheese with pepper jelly is the easiest hors-d’oeuvre in my canon. As long as all of the ingredients are readily available in my kitchen— and I make sure that they always are— I can put out a block of cream cheese with pepper jelly and Wheat Thins in about 90 seconds.

It’s rare that I see a block of cream cheese at a party these days. I think it’s considered unfashionable and behind the times. We are too caught up into trying to make things newer and better. I like to stick with the classics. Or, maybe the reason I never see a block of cream cheese at a party these days is it’s the first thing to go.

At the cocktail parties that were held in my childhood home, there was always a block of cream cheese on the coffee table. My mother topped it with one of three things: Pikapepa sauce, Jezebel sauce, or pepper jelly. By far, the best accompaniment is pepper jelly.

In the book Deep South Parties (Hyperion, 2006) I described those parties this way:

My earliest memory is of a cocktail party my parents were hosting in the living room of our small home on 22nd Avenue in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The year was 1965, and I was four years old. After a steady Saturday evening diet of FlipperI Dream of Jeanie, and Get Smart, I was under the covers at 8:30 pm I can remember lying in my bed, fully awake, hearing the 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 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 around both rooms room were bowlfuls of salted peanuts, plates filled with my grandmother’s bacon-wrapped crackers, and ashtrays of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The kitchen doubled as a bar and a well-stocked cabinet full of scotch, bourbon, vodka, gin, soda, and tonic was open all night. Throughout the house were cigarettes.

Parties were full of cigarettes. The world was full of cigarettes. They smoked on television, they smoked while cooking, they smoked while eating, they smoked while drinking, they smoked while driving, they smoked while drinking and driving, they smoked during sex, they smoked after sex, they smoked while sleeping, and they smoked while smoking. The Camel ads of the day claimed, “More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette.” Old Gold promised “Not a cough in a carload.” Today smoking is taboo, and during a party, mostly reserved for the backyard, carport, sidewalk, or balcony. But in those days smoking was sexy.

I was conceived on New Year’s Eve, 1960, in the days before cigarettes and scotch were replaced by Lamaze and sonograms. Parties are in my genetic make-up. I have always loved a party; I was born into it.

In those days, in the Hillendale neighborhood of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, there was a party around every corner, and the basics of the Southern cocktail party were: French Onion soup dips, melted processed-cheese dips with canned tomatoes, cream cheese with pepper jelly, and cocktail weenies swimming in vats of bottled barbeque sauce. Frill picks were used by the rich folks and meatballs were only brought out during special occasions.

I knew Mr. Peanut as well as I knew Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, the Three Stooges, and G.I. Joe. Party or not, there were always bowls of salted peanuts scattered around our house.

In the summertime on the Gulf Coast, we entertained guests with boiled shrimp, boiled crawfish, and crab salad on crackers. There were, of course, bowls of salted peanuts, glasses full of vodka and gin, and plenty of cigarettes.

In my high school years, a party consisted of a keg of beer near a wooded lake accompanied by a microwaved burrito from the 7-11 and a bottle of Visine. High school dances always held “breakfasts” afterward, but most couples didn’t show up and when they did, no one ate. My college years took the party inside with more kegs, trash cans full of grain-alcohol punch, hazy memories, and smoke-filled late nights at the Waffle House.

The South Mississippi bachelor special was a football game on the television and a plate of microwaved deer sausage with a side of French’s mustard, not a frill pick in sight. Not being one who hunts deer, or one who kept deer sausage in the refrigerator, I usually opted for chips and salsa.

Mardi Gras parties were the only respite from the boring and uninventive party menus of the 1960’s and 70’s. We celebrated Mardi Gras with abandon and partied as hard as any of our neighbors 90 miles South of us. During Mardi Gras the food improved, and the wine flowed. There were grillades and grits, French-inspired egg dishes, seafood-brunch specialties, king cakes, and plenty of milk punch, bloody Marys, mimosas, and cigarettes.

Early in my married life, parties began to turn. I was full bore into my restaurant career and catering came easy. New foodstuffs were hitting the local markets. Processed cheese gave way to goat cheese. Fresh herbs were available at the corner grocer. Cans of tuna were tossed out in favor of fresh-caught Gulf of Mexico tuna, the Yellowfin variety, served raw. There were oyster shooters and sides of salmon, pates, terrines, and caviar-laced canapés. Parties gained a whole new air— a fresher air— as the cigarettes fell victim to class-action lawsuits and effective counter-advertising.

I love to entertain. Sharing food with friends is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Entertaining should be easy and fun. Items should be prepared well in advance, so the host can enjoy the party, too. The freezer should be filled with enough emergency entertaining provisions that when a guest or a group of guests drop in, food is not a problem.

It is telling that my earliest memory is of a party, not of a toy, or a relative, or a favorite blanket, but a party. I gave up drinking in 1983 and smoking in 1995. I got married which almost forced me to give up sex, and now my only vice is food. But as long as there’s a block of cream cheese somewhere in the vicinity, I’m just fine.

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