Food for the Soul: Cheese Straws

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Kelly Tippett

Photographed by Kelly Tippett.

Betty Land. Photographed by Kelly Tippett.

From baby showers to banquets, the quintessential cheese straw is all but de rigueur at any social occasion South of the Mason-Dixon line. Why, there’s even a theory circulating that a bride and groom who don’t serve the cheddary morsels at the wedding reception may not actually be married.

Betty Land of Columbus has been helping hostesses keep their tables supplied for decades. She’s made the upscale finger food for more than 40 years, faithfully baking it each November for the Stephen D. Lee Home Country Store Bake Sale — where eager patrons line up by number to shop for their holiday tables — and each May for the Eight O’ May Bake Sale at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Fresh from the sale, or frozen until later, Land’s goodies have gone on to please plenty of palates in the Golden Triangle.

The sprightly senior says making the savory, rich treats with a peppery kick isn’t really that hard. But for traditional Southern cooks, turning them out in toasty perfection is a point of skill and pride.

“First of all, you’ve got to have real butter,” she instructs, lightly kneading a bowlful of cheesy mixture in the airy, sunlit kitchen of her historic home on Columbus’ Southside. The rooms are well-loved, filled with framed photographs and mementos of her late husband, mother and father and grandparents who once lived there, too. This is the home Land grew up in, and the kitchen she and her mother shared.

Opening a white beadboard cabinet, the retired elementary school teacher reaches past a gleaming electric cookie press she once gave a try. She draws out instead a tubular copper press she purchased in the 1970s at McKinney’s, a long-extinct Columbus hardware store. The press is tried-and-true, an old friend.

“When this breaks, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says, with a rueful grin.

Cheese straw recipes — and shapes — vary, but Land has her steps down to an efficient art. “I do my flour, salt and red pepper before I add the grated cheese,” she recites, adding that she re-measures the 2 cups of flour called for in her recipe after sifting it.

She generously tutors as she works, a teacher even now.  “I used to use New York State black rind cheese, but when I couldn’t get that anymore, I started using extra sharp Kraft cheese,” she says, her experienced hands deftly forming a “log” of mixture to load into the press.

Baking pans lined with parchment paper are ready nearby. Soon, Land is slowly pressing the deep golden mixture out in long strips onto the pristine surface.

“They aren’t as straight as I used to do them,” she concedes, “but I guess if they taste good, that’s the most important thing.”

Many a batch of cheese straws is lost in the baking. Some cooks find it the trickiest part.

“You’d better watch them,” the cook cautioned, popping the pans into a pre-heated oven. “My husband used to come in saying, ‘I smell cheese straws; I guess I’m going to get all the burned ones,’” she chuckled.

Before long, delicately crisp straws are cooling on the counter, the aroma filling the high-ceilinged kitchen. Neighbors and friends will soon be the lucky recipients of this particular lot.

Like most good Southern cooks, Land has been asked to pass on her knowledge to cheese straw neophytes. Remembering how a neighbor, Edna Banks, patiently taught her many decades ago, she’s graciously agreed. She’s humble about her skills, but admits “we sure have a good time.”

When it comes to donating her tasty snacks to the bake sales that benefit causes she cares about, Land has no plans to stop any time soon. But even when urged, she’s really never considered turning her culinary hobby into a business.

“Make them to sell? Oh no, I just make them for people I like,” she says with a near-impish grin. “It just wouldn’t be any fun if you made them for money.”