Opinion | Take festive solace in Midwestern party food

By Ellen Barczak, Asst. Opinions Editor

I’ve been known to be a cheerleader for the Midwest as a region. One aspect of Midwestern culture that I feel deserves more credit, though, is our party food.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has changed life so completely and will continue to disrupt our usual patterns and rhythms of life for the foreseeable future. The holiday season, I’m afraid, will be similarly changed.

We likely won’t see all of our extended family (whether that’s a positive thing or not, I’ll leave up to interpretation). We might not be able to host or attend any parties for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or otherwise.

However, we should focus on what we can control, not on what we cannot. One thing we can control, my dear Illinoisans and fellow Midwesterners, is our party food.

Oh, the vast array of lettuce-less salads! Hark, the unabashed usage of nitrates and other terrible-for-you additives that make those little-hot-dog-things or saucy-meatball-things so joyfully decadent!

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Last fall break, I went shopping with my Mom to our friendly, neighborhood Jewel-Osco. In the deli section, they had an entire open refrigerated case full of one single, essential holiday item: cream cheese. Glorious, full-fat cream cheese.

The ingredients that define the gluttonous special occasion foods we know and love are cream cheese, mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, sugar, and all things salty, lactose-abundant and filled with saturated fats. Let’s journey through some of my favorites together.

Marshmallow salad
Some call this ambrosia. As a kid, it was the only dish with the word “salad” in its title in which I cared to imbibe. The main ingredients? Fruit-flavored Jet Puffed marshmallows (artificially flavored and colored, of course), sugar, mayonnaise or sour cream, sugary canned pineapple, mandarin oranges or maraschino cherries. Heaven on a plate.

Pretzel-Jell-O salad
The thing that makes this particular “salad” unique is the combination of crushed pretzels and straight up melted butter that compose its crust. Top that salty, fatty base with a layer of sugared-up cream cheese and the Jell-O flavor of your choice (my favorite is strawberry), and you’ve got a casserole dish that would’ve been gobbled up at that church potluck in no time.

Buffalo chicken dip
Chicken. Ranch. Cream cheese. Cheddar cheese. Frank’s red hot. That’s all, folks. This dip is the bane of the lactose intolerant’s existence.

Mini hot dogs or meatballs in… sauce?
A personal favorite. Take mini meatballs or mini hot dogs and plop them into a simple, two-ingredient concoction: grape jelly and chili sauce. Yum!

Ham, but it’s encrusted in sugar
Enough said.

Life is tough, lately. But this holiday season, I invite you to join me on a culinary journey through the kitchen of the old ladies in your church’s choir. Sure, they might be carrying a few extra pounds, but how else can one keep warm through the midwestern winter?

In all seriousness, as uncertainty seems to only worsen as time marches on, let’s focus on what we can control, let’s focus on the simple pleasures and indulgences of life that remind us why it’s a great day to be alive.

So pile on the cream cheese and add a sprinkle of sugar for good measure. Rejoice in knowing you don’t have to politely nod and smile as your uncle makes some off-color comments and you don’t have to witness your little cousins ripping the heads off of your favorite old Barbies.

There are plenty of comforts still available to you right now, and even more silver linings, if you just keep your eyes (and mouth) open.

Happy holidays, Illini.


Ellen is the Assistant Opinions Editor and a senior in LAS.

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