At a dinner party at my friend Beth’s house several years ago I was visiting with my longtime friend Tommy. We were standing at the kitchen island taking about kids, business, and sports while taking turns carving up a block of cream cheese that had some type of sweet pepper sauce on it accompanied by Wheat Thins.
Many of the guests were gathered in the kitchen, though the way Tommy and I were positioned on the island, no one else was able to get to the cream cheese hors d’oeuvres. I don’t know if the hostess had planned on taking the dish into the living room or if she meant for her fellow guests to enjoy it in the kitchen. Either way it doesn’t really matter because it was completely blocked from view and positioned between Tommy and me and we were in deep conversation.
It was one of those situations where we were in the conversation zone. There was a conversational buzz throughout the house, but we were engaged. We were also taking repeated and alternating bites of cream cheese with pepper jelly. After 15-20 minutes I looked down and the entire block of cream cheese and almost all of the Wheat Thins were gone. Two men had annihilated an entire hors d’oeuvre in a matter of minutes.
Cream cheese with pepper jelly is good. It’s one of the primary go-to staples in the Southern cocktail party playbook.
I wrote a book several years ago that was all about Southern party food. Cream cheese hors d’oeuvres warranted an entire sub chapter titled “It Ain’t A Party Until Someone Breaks Out A Block Of Cream Cheese.” My friend, and a great Southern writer and hostess, 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: Pickapeppa Sauce, Jezebel Sauce or pepper jelly.”
My mother was a big proponent of cream cheese and pepper jelly. I grew up eating several versions of that easy hors d’oeuvre as a kid. I still serve cream cheese with some type of topping anytime we entertain guests in our home. It’s easy, but it’s popular.
I am not a big sweet or savory cheesecake eater. There really aren’t too many recipes in which I incorporate cream cheese. But I love the cream-cheese-pepper-jelly thing. It hits the party food trifecta: It’s quick, it’s easy, and it tastes good.
Several years ago one of the popular hors d’oeuvres in this part of the world was a baked dish with cheddar cheese, bacon, mayonnaise, Ritz crackers, and Captain Rodney’s Pepper Jelly. That’s a pretty good dish, but I can pour some Captain Rodney’s over a block of cream cheese and make my guests just as happy. Tabasco makes a pepper jelly that works well on a block of cream cheese, too.
I have often wondered if this is a Southern thing.
Do people who have last-minute surprise guests coming over to their home in Michigan have a jar of pepper jelly in the pantry?
Do they sell pepper jelly in Portland, Oregon? I would guess they do, but do they dump it on a block of cream cheese for a dinner party?
I developed three cream cheese toppings for the book “Deep South Parties.”
Each of those recipes uses some type of fruit. The peach might be the “most Southern” of the three, but one could always substitute muscadine or mayhaw jelly for one of the other fruit options to really “Southernize” it.
No self-respecting Southerner should be caught without a block of cream cheese in the refrigerator or a jar of pepper jelly in the pantry. One never knows when company might show up unannounced.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.