What screams Christmas more than processed pork?

Every family seems to have its own Christmas/holiday oddity, especially when it comes to food. It’s like opening gifts — some families assign a Santa to hand out gifts, others take turns and some open them all at once in a Fa-la-la-la-frenzy.

Food follows similar patterns, and sometimes the traditions come and go. When I was a kid, we always gathered at my grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve to eat, conspire and open gifts. There was always a fruitcake on the table, and I never knew why. Now, I realize it was just tradition — I’m not sure anyone ever ate the damn thing.

Now that my grandparents have passed, we gather at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve, where new traditions have taken hold. One holdover is that my mom still makes tollhouse cookies, in part because I loved them so much as a kid. These days, I’ll eat one, maybe two, during the festivities and end up with a huge bag to take home. It’s high-calorie food I don’t need and yet I can’t say no — they’re homemade chocolate chip cookies, for crying out loud.

But three holiday snacks in particular have stood the test of time and continue to really signify Christmas for me. The first is a seemingly-weird combination of dried beef and cream cheese. Maybe you’ve had this strange treat before — essentially, my folks get a couple of blocks of Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese, spread globs of the stuff across pieces of Armour “ground and formed” dried beef (seriously?), and just roll the beef around the cheese.

Boom, ready to eat.

It sounds disgusting, and if you really sit down to study this snack, it is disgusting. Yet, the folks at Armour do their best to convince us otherwise, writing this about the beef product (with edits): “Armour Star Sliced Dried Beef is made with fresh beef that is dried until it takes a robust flavor. Each slice contains nine calories and is 95 percent fat free. Ideal for today’s health-conscious people who are looking for low-fat food.”

OK. Now, add the fat from the cream cheese, and you’ve got a truly healthful treat. Or not. Still, something about the absurd saltiness of the meat and how it blends with the creamy, mild cheese, brings me back for more. Hey, it’s Christmas. I won’t touch this stuff again for another year, so cut me some slack on the 24th.

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Another family treat that goes back as far as I can remember is the cheeseball. As best I can remember, it’s a couple blocks of the same cream cheese (what’s with my family and cheese, anyway?), A.1. Steak Sauce, crushed pecans, onion salt and garlic salt and not much else, although many recipes online call for more exotic ingredients. My parents always have preferred to keep it basic.

Anyway, the cheeseball sits in the fridge for a few hours, assuring it will be solid enough to break your cracker if you try to dip it directly. Sociables were always the preferred choice at my house — do they still make those? [Ed. note: yes.] So, my parents put out tiny instruments that look like putty knives for elves, which you use to slap a mound of cheeseball on your plate and spread at your own leisure. Tasty, filled with fat, but hey, at least there’s valuable protein in the nuts, right?

By far my favorite is the obviously most healthful of the Christmas treats in the Gibson household: the almighty sausage-cheese balls. My parents diligently make these in advance and freeze them, breaking them out on Christmas Eve by way of a slow cooker, giving the kitchen a smell of true holiday cheer — mixed with animal flesh.

Basically, these things are little wads of breakfast sausage mixed with shredded Colby cheese and some Bisquick and then baked on a cookie sheet for a few minutes. They get browned and crispy on the bottom, but the main body remains fluffy. And who doesn’t love breakfast sausage mixed with cheese? Does anything scream Christmas more than processed pork? They taste like heaven, and I’m not exaggerating.

Seriously, I can eat my weight in these things, and there’s always a line to get a Baggie full to take home when the evening’s festivities conclude (thank goodness my parents always make extra). I eat them as a meal the next day, and I’m not even joking about this — put eight or nine of those boys on a plate, pop them into the microwave for a few seconds, and you’re talking lunch.

And then I usually have about three pounds of chocolate chip cookies waiting for me if I want dessert. Why can’t it be Christmas every day?

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