Every year that we were in town for Christmas and not at Auntie Ev and Uncle Ray’s in New Jersey, we went to Queenie and Ivan’s Christmas Eve Party. And an epic party it was. Adults wearing everything from tacky holiday sweaters to long dresses adorned with crystals talked and laughed; drank and ate. And drank. It was a loud party; it was a fabulous party; it was a delicious party. It was the kind of party where, even if you only saw these folks once a year at the party, you brought them a little Christmas treat. As little kids, we all played together almost every day anyway. At the Christmas party, we just played in nicer clothes. As we got older and went away to college, we kids would carve out a space in the downstairs rec room and pull up chairs. We’d catch up, first with sodas and then over beer and wine. The Christmas Eve Party was our touchstone.
Everyone brought food. All the women and some of the men had their specialties that had to make an appearance lest they not be invited back the next year. My mom made cheese olive puffs. Queenie made Nuts & Bolts–the real kind, back before crazy fake blends of crackers were sold as “Party Mix.” Ivan’s mom Ethel made vegetable sandwiches. Incidentally, I’m in charge of the vegetable sandwiches now since Ethel died this year. I will endeavor to do her proud. Queenie often made those fantastic little ham and cheese “biscuits,” the kind with the poppy seed and mustard spread.
And then there was red sauce. I don’t know if there was one specific person in charge of making it since it was a neighborhood recipe. I have no idea who first came up with this stuff, but if I did, I’d give them a big old kiss.
How to describe red sauce to you? It is ketchup based. It’s one of those recipes from the 70s that combines a bunch of different prepared products that don’t sound like they should go together. Reading the ingredient list is like listening to a symphony warm up. Nobody is playing with anyone else. The oboist is playing in one key while the flutist is playing in another and the viola is playing in a third. And then, the lights dim and come back up, and the symphony plays in harmony. That’s what happens with red sauce.
It’s sweet and sour and one of the tangiest sauces ever. It’s unapologetically neon red, just a tiny bit spicy and so very moreish that there is rarely any left once I get started. If I run out of cream cheese, I just shrug and eat it without.
For a party, you’re supposed to pour red sauce on a block of cream cheese so it cascades down the sides. The best crackers to eat with it are ones that have a fairly neutral flavor like Ritz or Captains wafers or any sort of butter cracker. I only had Triscuits, and they work fine to get it to your mouth, but the crunch and assertive wheatiness of them tend to fight with the sauce. So buy some unassuming crackers to play Barbara Hershey to the red sauce’s Bette Midler, and get yourself to the kitchen to whip up a vat.
Half Batch | Full Batch
- 3/4 cup | 1 1/2 cups ketchup
- 1/2 cup | 1 cup honey
- 1 Tablespoon | 2 Tablespoons A-1 Steak Sauce, (you could sub Worcestershire, but it won't be the same)
- 1/2 medium | 1 medium onion, , chopped
- 1 clove | 2 cloves garlic, , minced
- 1/4 teaspoon | 1/2 teaspoon salt, (if using kosher, use very gently rounded measurements)
- 1/4 teaspoon | 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 Tablespoon | 2 Tablespoons vinegar, (I used apple cider vinegar)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons | 1 Tablespoon prepared yellow mustard
- 2 Tablespoons | 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Put all the ingredients in a saucepan. Stir over medium heat until it comes to a boil.
- Simmer 10 minutes, then cool. Serve chilled over cream cheese with crackers.
You can play with this recipe if you want, changing up proportions or trying it with Dijon mustard, but I implore you to try it exactly as written. I am telling you; it is perfect.
Here’s a retro photo of the red sauce. Looks about right, no?
I wish I could explain to you how much I love this stuff. I know it sounds kind of odd what with the ketchup and A-1 and mustard and all, but man is it good! Please make some and then come back and tell me how much you enjoyed it, and then pass the recipe along because there is very little mention of it at all on the Internet. Of course I checked, and the only reference to it I saw on the entire Internet is a post from 2011 in a forum. A forlorn person was asking–nay begging–for the recipe that they remembered from their childhood in the 1970s. Someone shared a red sauce recipe, but it’s not this one. And this one is The Best. I hope they find it, because their search is over.
Thanks for reading, friends, and I hope cream cheese and red sauce finds its way onto your holiday appetizer list this year.
What’s your favorite retro holiday appetizer that you couldn’t get enough of as a kid (or now)?
PS Guess where we’ll be on Christmas Eve? Yup, at that same party hosted by Queenie’s daughter, my best friend Julie. The only difference is that now we’re the adults. Lord help us all.