My sister, Jenn, is well known for her over-the-top themed birthday parties. Last night she rocked out yet another one – creating a Willy Wonka Wonderland for her sweet daughter’s third birthday. This one was SO insanely well done, that one of her nephews said – in an affectionate way – “Aunt Jenn, you’re officially crazy!” What’s great about my sister’s parties is that she makes them fun for the kids with super-creative party favors , decorations, cookies, and games. But, she also has great food for the adults.
She always has a pre-dinner gnosh that everyone can peck at before the main event. And, one of the now standards at the spread is a plate of cream cheese with a spicy pepper jelly spooned over, surrounded by cocktail crackers. This isn’t anything we grew up eating – the gnoshes of our home years might have included the obligatory hanky panky dip, or a Skyline chili dip. But Jenn is mixing it up, contemporizing our family food lexicons- and this time, with the spicy jelly-over-cream cheese, is borrowing from an old Southern Sauce, known as the Jezebel sauce. I learned about this Southern staple from the Food Network Star competition on the Food Network.
The Jezebel sauce is a sweet and spicy one – similar to the red pepper jelly my sister uses in her appetizer. The Southern version is usually made of equal parts pineapple, peach, or apricot preserves and apple jelly, and then tricked out with horseradish sauce, dried or prepared mustard, and sometimes black pepper. It’s typically used as a glaze on ham, chicken or pork, but also very popular as a cracker dipper over cream cheese. It’s also been served on biscuits over country ham and pimento cheese, at places like the Scratch Biscuit Company in Roanoke.
The origin is a bit dicey, because it’s claimed by Florida, Kansas, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, one of my favorite yearly fall food meccas. Its name, after one of the bad girls of the Bible – the headstrong Phoenician Queen Jezebel, in the Old Testament, who was thrown out of a window and consequently eaten by dogs – might hint at it’s originator. Jezebel, was as an assertive woman vilified for thousands of years because she wouldn’t let men dominate her and because she seduced King Ahab and then allowed worship of the idol Baal in Israel. The term ‘jezebel’ became associated with fallen women and false prophets. The popular 1938 American film with the same title was named after the Biblical seductress So, perhaps the origin story comes from either a judgey Church lady who created the sauce for a Sunday congregational dinner, or a 1930s housewife who’d seen the movie and yearned for more excitement in her life.
Although references to fruit horseradish sauces in the South come as early as 1938, the Jezebel sauce is first referenced in a newspaper article in 1958, by American food writer (for the New York Sun and New York Herald Tribune) Clementine Paddleford.
Whatever the Southern origin, the Jezebel sauce, or another spicy form of it, has made it north of the Mason-Dixon to our Yankee table care of my cooky-party-planning sister.