Christmas Food

I was 5 years old. I was with my friends, loitering behind the Baptist church. We sat on the concrete retaining wall overlooking the creek bed. We were practicing our spitting.

Mark Anderson arrived in a rush, rosy-cheeked, struggling to catch his breath. He held a cookie tin in his hands.

“I got’em,” Mark said.

Mark opened the tin and distributed the precious contraband. We knew he’d risked his life to smuggle this delicacy across the frontlines of his mother’s kitchen.

They were orangish strips, seasoned with cayenne. I took one bite and my world exploded.

It was like looking directly into a leafblower. The entire universe opened in a singular moment of spiritual oneness. All of a sudden, the work of Brahms, Webern, and Bartók immediately made sense. Suddenly I understood 19th century French poetry. All at once I grasped the transitory nature of existence, although, technically, I was still at an age where I peed the bed.

“What are these?” a newcomer asked with a mouthful.

“These,” said Mark sagely, “are my mom’s cheese straws.”

Cheese straws.

If you’ve never had cheese straws, I hope you get some this Christmas. They will blow your hair back. Imagine a crumbly, savory, buttery, floury concoction, baked with enough cheddar to turn your bowels into stone.

Mark Anderson’s mother delivered her cheese straws to our doorstep every Christmas season. Her straws would inspire fistfights within my household.

No sooner would her biscuit tin arrive than my old man would confiscate the container like a purse snatcher. My mother would cut him off at the backdoor, threatening to alter his anatomy with a melon baller.

One year my mother actually tried making cheese straws, but it was a disaster. Her straws came out like briquettes of Kingsford charcoal, only with less flavor. Because as it turns out, cheese straws are fragile things to prepare. Almost like a fine soufflé, or a batch of pâte à choux. They require decades of practice.

Of course, I’m not saying my mother isn’t a great baker. My mother is one of the most acclaimed kitchenologists of her time. There are certain holiday-specific foods my mother is internationally noted for. Such as homemade toffee, pecan brittle, Christmas crack, and of course, caramel popcorn balls.

Oh. Popcorn balls. Sweet merciful Lord. My mother’s caramel popcorn balls are the size of regulation dodgeballs and sweet enough to break your larynx. In 1981, a crack team of university researchers conducted a state-funded study which concluded that the number one factor responsible for America’s type-two diabetes epidemic was my mother’s popcorn balls.

Every year my mother would bring popcorn balls to our church Christmas party. They were her flagship dish. They were so famous that people stood in line for hours simply so Mama would autograph their Bibles.

Those were happier times. Those Christmas parties were the highlight of our community calendar, and I miss them dearly. In a way, they were glorified culinary contests for fundamentalists.

Each able-bodied church lady prepared her finest foods in cornflower-blue Corningware dishes and, with all humility, tried sincerely to slaughter her opponents.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these weren’t pious women. They were sweet elderly females who volunteered in the nursery and could sing the baritone parts to any Gaither song. But when it came to cooking…

These women were UFC cage fighters.

These staunch females with their thick nylons, mountainous hair, and cat-eye glasses became bloodthirsty rivals at Christmas. And you didn’t mess with them, either. Because these were also women who could gut catfish, defeather poultry, and brain young men who said, “No thanks, I don’t like onions.

One time we had a preacher who came from Pennsylvania, he knew nothing of our cultural etiquette. During one Christmas party he was sampling food from tables and I’ll never forget what he said to Miss Anne Schulz. He said, “Hmmm. This deviled egg could use a LOT more salt.”

Then he salted it.

The room fell silent. People quit laughing. The piano quit playing “Deck the Halls.” And somewhere in the distance a baby cried.

The preacher’s eyes got big. The Pennsylvanian obviously knew he’d done something wrong, but he couldn’t figure out exactly what. The poor guy looked like a frog just before it encounters a lawnmower.

Later that night, 16 elderly altos visited the parking lot, rolled their sleeves, and used their combined strength to push the preacher’s Plymouth into the river.

While we’re on the subject, I also miss the taste of white-chocolate pretzels, homemade gingerbread, barbecue-sauce cocktail weenies, cheese logs, peppermint bark, Aunt Eulah’s Episcopalian eggnog. And of course, I miss pepper jelly served over a brick of room-temp cream cheese.

When did young people quit eating pepper jelly? And why?

These were benchmarks of childhood. I’ve found that the older I get, the quicker these holiday traditions are disappearing. I’m not saying this makes me sad, because I know life must move forward. I realize that young people must form their own beautiful traditions.

Still, no matter what age I am, whenever I need to remember a world that was slower, less technological, less angry, less fearful, and less infected, less divided, I close my eyes and I bring it back.

I think of a place that was full of simple people, sweeter songs, unapologetic cholesterol abusers, old women in pearls, and all the beautifully handwritten letters people used to send. A time when yellow traffic lights meant slow down, not speed up. An era when kids weren’t hesitant to wave at strangers.

Wherever you are this Christmas, I wish you love. I wish for peace among your family. But most of all, I wish that you could try Mark Anderson’s mom’s cheese straws.


  1. James e inman - December 23, 2020 6:58 am

    Oh my, My cousin Heather’s pecan brittle is what dreams are made of. A sweet and savory Christmas to you and ya family Sean. God bless from another Son of the South

  2. HT - December 23, 2020 7:27 am

    Pepper Jelly, Cheese Straws…Heaven scent, uh, sent. Indeed.

  3. Nell Thomas - December 23, 2020 7:43 am

    Thanks for the trip back into a joyful place in time. Merry Christmas to the Dietrich household.

  4. Sandi. - December 23, 2020 9:41 am

    Sean and Jamie, have a special, memorable Christmas. My dear mother made cheese straws using a cookie press attachment, and they tasted as delightful as your description of Mark Anderson’s mom’s recipe … light, buttery, savory, and oh, very “moreish” … the more you ate, the more you wanted!

  5. Karen Erwin-Brown - December 23, 2020 9:46 am

    oh you make me laugh, and remember. I’m a preacher’s wife, and I don’t cook…he is the cook. A great one. We are retired now and I’m just now learning to play the piano. 2 strikes against the preacher’s wife back in the day. Have yourself a Merry Christmas. Our cheese straw maker is in heaven, my father-in-law. He also was the peanut brittle maker. I will stop before I make you drool thinking about my Grandmother Starnes date roll.She was famous for her boxes of Christmas candy on Christmas Eve. Also for having many Baby Jesus on the dining table with the Nativity scene. It gave all the grands a special Baby to play with. I have a collection of many Baby Jesus available for my 4 grand boys to play with. Our Leggo Baby Jesus is currently somewhere among us…not in his straw bed. ???

  6. Laura - December 23, 2020 10:17 am

    My work colleagues consider me a candy crack dealer when I make my Mom’s peanut brittle. It was her signature holiday treat and I have picked up the mantle in the years since she passed. Merry Christmas to all!

  7. Ann - December 23, 2020 11:12 am

    We need the return of the kitchenologists….all you mentioned…it’s comfort food and joy!….and today I’m making cheese straws! Merry Christmas

  8. Kelley Hinsley - December 23, 2020 11:38 am

    This is a home run! You “got all of that one”!
    You are talkin about my life here and you hit it right and with a extra helping of artistry. Thank you. At 73 I speaks more time about the long past and all these things than I do about what may come next.
    Kelley Hinsley, from Arlington, Tn.

  9. joan moore - December 23, 2020 12:01 pm

    Sean, the closest thing to Mark’s momma’s are Mook Mills Cheese Straws out of Florence,Al. Check in Publix, but I would just eat Jamie’s. Merry Christmas!

  10. Jimmy Stewart - December 23, 2020 12:14 pm

    Among your best Sean! Thankful for the memories I have that your writings bring to the surface every morning. I believe that is what makes your daily offerings contagious. We read and we are taken back through your memorable stories and characters to our own. Or, as you are prone to write regularly about beautiful ordinary people doing extraordinary things, we long for the world to be kinder, gentler and more connected. Thank you for connecting us to our memories through yours and to each other with such grace and wit. Your daily posts are like Christmas morning every single day of the year. A new gift to unwrap. A present to enjoy. Love to be felt. A hug. MERRY CHRISTMAS SEAN & JAMIE!!!

  11. Vanessa - December 23, 2020 1:04 pm

    Sean — this is so beautiful! I’ve been following you for over two years and each time I think you have reached your pinnacle as a writer, you outdo yourself. Your writing has been a bright spot in my days in 2020. May God bless you and your family! Merry Christmas!

  12. Heidi - December 23, 2020 1:09 pm

    I’m waiting on that cookbook Sean & Jamie!😂Love to your entire family & Merry Christmas!❤️

  13. Gloria - December 23, 2020 1:22 pm

    Thank you for opening memories of years gone by.. while this Christmas will be different, only six instead of thirty family members, there will still be Momma’s fruitcake and ambrosia. How well it goes with our non-traditional meal will be another story. Praying that next Christmas will bring families back around the tables together and all healthy. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  14. KAY JENKINS - December 23, 2020 1:23 pm

    Well, I was trying to decide if I would have time to make cheese straws after I finished the buckeyes today. Can’t say “yes” yet, but I’m gonna try. Christmas blessings to you and yours. Kay (NG, CEO, BCOG)

  15. Debra H Sanders - December 23, 2020 1:43 pm

    Thanks for today’s column, Sean. I think I’m going to make some cheese straws this morning. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  16. Alease Moore Perry - December 23, 2020 1:53 pm

    What a great story…as it brought back great memories. My favorite cheese straws came from another town and another great cook. She also made these little tea biscuits that were bite size with a smidge of ham and melted in your mouth. Even though I grew up in eastern N.C. we had many of the same traditions. You also reminded me of the time my mom tried to make cheese straws which were not straws but little crackers with rice krispies in them. How disappointed I was. I still eat pepper jelly on cream cheese, be damned what’s in fashion.

    Thank you and Merry Christmas.

  17. Rich Owen - December 23, 2020 2:04 pm

    I’ll stick with my wife’s rolo cookies, warmed in the microwave for about 10 seconds.

  18. Judy - December 23, 2020 2:07 pm

    You have written about the glorious cheesestraw. Our family name is Stras, so we call them cheesestras. After many failures I finally mastered the art of making them and quickly became popular during the holidays. I have my grandmother’s cookie press and use the star plate. Many of my relatives hide in the closet and devour them. My brother sends me a picture of the empty container, begging for more. They have caused fights and addiction..a toast to the power of a cheesestras. YUM

  19. Judy - December 23, 2020 2:21 pm

    You have written a column to the glorious cheesestraw. Our family name is Stras so we call them cheesestras. I finally mastered the art of making these delicious delicate goodies with my grandmother’s cookie press with the star plate. I am very popular during the holidays and have caused fights and addiction. My brother sends me a picture of the empty container begging for more. Many family members hide in the closet and devour them. A toast to the power of the cheesestras. YUM

  20. Judy - December 23, 2020 2:28 pm

    Did not mean to post twice, but they should have millions of YUMS.

  21. Margaret E Odell - December 23, 2020 2:36 pm

    For me, Christmas is my mom’s divinity, homemade ChexMix, and posole! Merry Christmas.

  22. Ann - December 23, 2020 3:17 pm

    Merry Christmas to you and your family. I love reading your stories. Sometimes I laugh and sometimes I cry.

  23. Kathie - December 23, 2020 3:23 pm

    Well saiid, Mr. Stewart.

  24. Jenny Young - December 23, 2020 3:42 pm

    I guess I need to learn how to make cheese straws…better yet, I’ll see if I can talk my daughter-in-law into making them. She’s the baker in the family.

    Seriously I’ve eaten her delicious creations since she was 14 when my son told me…& I quote “Mom what would you do if I smashed a mailbox, wrecked the car, killed someone & got a girlfriend all in the same day?’ He was basically saying…mom think of all the really bad things I could be doing & all I want to do is hang out with this pretty girl. Well he’s still hanging out with her 14 yrs, a marriage, a baby, a mortgage & few car payments later……..& we adore her. I never had a daughter & I could not have chosen a better one. I digress. It’s hard not to sing her praises because she is an amazing cook & actually has her own cookie baking business. So I’m sure she could make some earth shattering cheese straws.

  25. Betty Odom - December 23, 2020 4:18 pm

    Of course always enjoy your posts…today couldn’t help but think when I introduced to my fellow worshippers at the FBC in Columbia…my White Trash!! Brought about a forced smile but then tasted it….always a hit. So decided I needed to alter the name to Trash!! Merry Christmas to you and Jamie. Always remember sharing Lunch with and your Bride at Zack’s in Dothan, Alabama.

  26. Nancy - December 23, 2020 4:19 pm

    I grew up in N Alabama, but haven’t lived there in many years. Around my parents’ place, it was my mother’s chocolate meringue pie. Grandsons have been known to steal them and hide them. One of them was forgotten and didn’t hold up well. My sister has assumed the chocolate pie mantle, but there aren’t so many people around. Diabetes and gluten intolerance have ruined my consumption of this delight.
    Merry Christmas to all.

  27. Jan - December 23, 2020 4:23 pm

    Loved that walk down memory lane. Every family has their traditions which make Christmas special. They make wonderful stories, glorious memories and dreams to last a lifetime!

  28. Linda Moon - December 23, 2020 4:58 pm

    Cheese straws. They are worth messing up a coiffure or a well-known cavity. Happy memories of most of your childhood foods are like mine, too. Remember your world of traditions unapologetically, Sean. It was an imperfect one….yet simply beautiful!

  29. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - December 23, 2020 5:44 pm

    Ah, sweet memories! I still make pepper jelly and serve it that way but we have access to the best cheese straws at Bonnie Ray’s in Oxford, Alabama. So good! Merry Christmas Sean and Jamie!

  30. Christopher Spencer - December 23, 2020 5:51 pm

    I miss divinity candy. I haven’t had any in decades, can’t even remember what it tastes like. But I do remember it was one of my favorite Christmas foods.

  31. Sharon Carter - December 23, 2020 6:28 pm

    IGA grocery in OPP, AL has baked in the store CHEESE STRAWS they are good enough to pass as your homemade secret receiptRivergal211

  32. MAM - December 23, 2020 8:15 pm

    My mom was not much of a cook. She fed us adequately, but she was a AWESOME baker. Her lemon meringue pie was what I wanted for my birthday “cake” every year. and she made a lemon pound cake that was melt in your mouth. Her oatmeal cookies were famous for any church or other baking event. I’ve had a few cheese straws over the years and the best are GREAT! Thanks for the memories, Sean!

  33. Joann Thompson - December 23, 2020 9:06 pm

    Thank you for penning these words everyday. You lift my spirits, spark memories of home, and give me a chuckle. We all need more of those these days. Bless you and your wife and fur babies. Have a good, safe Christmas and here’s hoping 2021 is not such a bummer.

  34. Joann Thompson - December 23, 2020 9:11 pm

    I forgot to tell you that one of my first cousins in Meridian, MS, had a local magazine article recently published about her cooking. Evidently she is most famous for her Black Bottom Pie, brownies, and cheese straws.

  35. Bill - December 23, 2020 10:30 pm

    Cheese Straws are available commercially. You can Google them. When I was a kid, we were members of a Hungarian Evangelical church in Gary, In. As you probably guessed, I’m Hungarian, only by family lineage, however. We would have dinners after the Sunday service on special occasions in the huge basement of the church. The ladies that prepared the dinner were as you described them and the men knew to stay out of the kitchen Oh what feasts they prepared. It would start with chicken soup a much as you wanted. This was followed by salad and then the main course, Chicken Paprikash. Pieces of chicken in a gravey sauce heavy with paprika. What a taste. This was all followed by Hungarian desserts, kossuth kifli and Dobosh Torte to name a few. Those were the days. I’m fortunate that my wife, when we first got married learned how to make these delicacies. She didn’t learn them from my mother, but from my aunt who never measured anything. The old school way.

    Merry Christmas…all

  36. Allie Brown - December 24, 2020 12:07 am

    Dear Sean,
    Today I learned my adult son (about to be a second time dad) was Covid positive. My son-in-law is also Covid positive. Not a good time for the men in my life. Also a friend delivering a Christmas present, left her car running and her car plunged into my garage.
    I worked resolving an issue settling my father’s estate AND I read your post about cheese straws and Southern food. I laughed out loud, LOUDLY! I live alone so my own laughter startled me!
    Thank you so much for your wonderful post. So often your posts make me cry and they make me laugh and they remind me that I am alive and feeling.
    You touch our lives in such a special way. Merry Christmas and keep on touching us.

  37. Bob Emery - December 24, 2020 1:50 am

    Dear Sean,
    Home run.
    The most chuckles yet by yours truly even though I’m not familiar with most of the delicacies mentioned. Blame Canadian upbringing.
    Will definitely be sending this foodie collection to many.
    Looking forward to your next blog.

  38. Barbara J Schweck - December 24, 2020 2:59 am

    Merry Christmas to you and Jamie, your furbabies, and the rest of the family. My mom always made fudge, divinity, and peanut brittle only at Christmas!! Very special memories!! Fortunately, when we moved to Alabama, we happened to move next door to the Cheesestraw Queen!! They are delicious and she cooks all things Southern! Such a sweet, wonderful, kind, Southern Baptist lady with the perfect drawl.So blessed to have her as a friend!

  39. Barbara J Schweck - December 24, 2020 3:03 am

    So sorry for all of your misfortune!! Hope everything and everybody gets better soon!! What would we do without faith, prayer, and LAUGHTER!!! Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year!!

  40. Tom - December 24, 2020 3:55 am

    This took me back several years when you talk about the church ladies and their cooking. But now in my older years, I lucked out on the cheese straws. My daughter-in-law’s grandmother could make cheese straws that were out of this world. She has passed and I miss the sweet southern lady and her cheese straws.

  41. Lana Kaiser - December 24, 2020 4:32 am

    One of my very favorites! Cheese straws. I have never tried to make them myself.
    Piggly Wiggly has some good ones but some of the best store bought came from Priester’s Pecans. I think they were made in Selma.

  42. Christina - December 24, 2020 7:08 am

    Sean, thanks for sharing about all these southern delicacies along with the funniest stories. Now I gotta try some of those cheese straws

  43. Beverly Tsapralis - December 24, 2020 2:41 pm

    I married into a Greek family and have to spill the secret. Yes, they make baklava and it’s yummy. But I’m sure they make it so the non-Greeks eat this instead of their favorite…Galaktoboureko….a custard dessert with phyllo dough. It’s fantastic. I’m sure there is a Greek Orthodox Church near you and you should go to their next church bazar to eat. I’m sure there will be some Galaktoboureko there along with others yummies. Sometimes Greek restaurants have this dessert. Merry Christmas

  44. GREGORY K WILLIAMSON - December 24, 2020 3:10 pm

    As a Northerner, it was warm leftse. Haven’t had it for many years. Your story brought back many Christmas memories of warm leftse slathered with butter and doused with butter. Thanks for the memories

  45. Patricia Gibson - December 25, 2020 1:17 am

    I miss and wish for those times too❤️

  46. Mark Cunningham - December 25, 2020 9:24 pm

    The best Cheese Straws on this planet are “Mama Geraldines Bodacious Cheese Straws” home made in Jasper, Ga. They truly are delicious. They can be found in the deli section at Kroger, Publix, Ingles and many other stores. They have been making Cheese Straws for over 25 years……also check them out at

  47. Helen De Prima - December 27, 2020 3:50 am

    Of course, being raised Baptist, you couldn’t include bourbon balls. My aunt’s recipe is unlike any other I’ve found: simple, unbaked, and decadently delicious. Growing up in Kentucky, Christmas and Derby absolutely required big batches of bourbon balls.

  48. Debbie Cloud - December 28, 2020 2:21 pm

    Ok, I’m going right now to look up the recipe for cheese straws. You have me curious! Thanks!!!

  49. Julie - January 11, 2021 4:06 pm

    Thank you, Sean…for this sweet walk down Memory Lane…and I do mean SWEET❣️ For me personally, Southern Pecan Divinity was divine‼️


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