I recently thumbed through the 1916 edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cookbook and to my surprise saw a recipe for Cheese Straws. I was amazed that these were known in our town more than a century ago. They were not a regular for several subsequent editions, however, a new recipe was noted in the 9th and subsequent editions since 1969.
Most authorities believe cheese straws were a traditional food of England. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1859 in London, has a recipe for Cayenne Cheese Crackers. Wherever they originated, they found a secure home in the American South. Supposedly a frugal cook mixed leftover biscuit dough with some cheese and cut it into long strips for baking. These “straws” are baked by southern cooks in many shapes, but thin strips are most widespread. They can still be found in Britain and remain popular in Holland. Even Fannie Farmer included a recipe in her 1918 edition of her Bostonian classic—two years after the first Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book introduced them here.
It appears the origin of cheese straws is the subject of a great debate to this day. An article entitled British Food in America appeared in the fall 2008 edition of Gastronomica. It went to great lengths to respond to what some debated are purely American foods. Reading parts reminded me of the great debate over which came first, the egg or the chicken. Nevertheless, it simply emphasized that nowhere in the U.S. have traditional British foods proven more influential and resilient than in the American south. That might be surprising since one might believe that New England would be more closely allied with England than the southern states. Consequently, outside the South, cheese straws just don’t seem to be found anywhere else these days.
Today cheese straws in the South have grown stronger than their British parents. In fact, no place has an adopted snack been accepted with more enthusiasm than in the South. The Gastronomica concludes that this occurred because cheese straws would keep. Few homes had air conditioners until the late 1960s. Also, they were, and are, such a good snack to eat while drinking that in New Orleans, Charleston, Mobile and Savannah, well known drinking towns of the South, they have become a staple on cocktail tables and bars.
On a side note, it is claimed that the Junior League of Charleston’s Charleston Recipes, first published in 1950, is the oldest continuously published fundraiser cookbook in America. The Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book would have bested them if it were still being published.
Case and I had never heard of them or, at least, I hadn’t, until we began exhibiting at the Dallas World Trade Center in the late 80’s. There we met fellow entrepreneurs, Larry and Mary Mulkey of Dallas, a couple who was marketing them under their brand – Old Chisholm Trail. They had given their southern recipe a western touch by adding jalapenos, which was truly unique. They made several flavors, but the traditional cheese was everyone’s favorite. We loved them. They were the kind of snack of which you can’t eat just one. We liked them so much we bought the company, and did well with them for the next decade, but there came a time in which we had to decide whether we were serious about growing Fischer & Wieser so, we set that production aside—for now. Maybe, one day, we’ll resume production. Here are several recipes that will give you a taste why southerners so love them.
Alvina Gold’s Cheese Straws
1 cup flour
1 cup grated cheese
1 level tsp salt
1/6th tsp Cayenne Pepper
4 tbsp Snowdrift™
3 tbsp cold water
Sift flour and using a fork mix with Snowdrift
Add cheese and seasoning
Add ice water
Roll on floured surface to ¼ inch thickness
Cut into narrow strips
Bake in “quick” oven
The following recipe first appeared in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1859 in England. It was every British housewife’s guide to good housekeeping.
Mrs. Beeton’s Cayenne Cheeses
From her 1859 Household Management Book – London. U.K.
½ lb. butter
½ lb. flour
½ lb. grated cheese (which kind was not specified)
1/3 tsp cayenne pepper
1/3 tsp salt
Rub the butter in the flour; add the grated cheese, cayenne, and salt; and mix these ingredients well together.
Moisten with sufficient water to make the whole into a paste.
Roll out and cut into fingers about 4 inches in length.
Bake in a moderate oven a very light color from 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve hot from the oven.
Servings sufficient for 6 to 7 persons.
Denise Fenton, our dear friend from Dallas shared her delicious recipe with me. It’s easy and quick to make.
Denise Fenton’s Cheese Straws
1 cup all-purpose flour
6 tbsp frozen unsalted butter, grated
1 cup coarsely grated cheddar cheese (4 oz)
1 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese (4 oz)
¼ cup ice water for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 400ºF
Butter a large baking pan.
In a medium bowl, combine flour and grated butter.
Add the cheeses and mix using your hands until well combined.
Stir in water.
On a clean floured surface, knead the dough until smooth.
Sprinkle in a few drops of ice water if dough is too dry.
Shape into a disk.
Roll out to form a large rectangle (about 9 by 12) ¼ inch thick
Cut ½ inch strips.
Sprinkle with salt.
Transfer to the baking sheet and bake until golden brown – about 15 minutes.
Keep in air-tight tin.