Made with cream cheese and a relish-like assortment of green peppers, sweet pickles, stuffed olives, garlic, and onion, this retro pepper cheese dip is enormously flavorful, and extremely popular.
I’m sharing a family recipe today in honor of my late grandmother, Shirley Russell Seavey.
A zippy cheese spread (known simply as “Nana’s Cheese”), this was one of her trademarks, served at family parties and given out at Christmas. Made with cream cheese and a relish-like assortment of green peppers, sweet pickles, stuffed olives, garlic, and onion, it’s enormously flavorful, yet somewhat hard to describe.
“It’s a cream cheese dip, but with peppers. And pickles… And ketchup…”
Eventually I settle on “Just try it. You’ll like it.” And everyone always does.
I actually heard about “the cheese” long before I ever tasted it. My parents are divorced, but my mother would occasionally talk about my grandmother’s pepper cheese dip with the same longing I sometimes heard in my father’s voice when he talked about my other grandmother’s homemade spaghetti sauce.
Six years ago, having never seen or tried this mystery cheese, I asked Nana about it. In response, she handed me a plastic-wrapped copy of the recipe to keep.
She said the recipe originally came from a restaurant in Wakefield, Massachusetts called The Wagon Wheel. (I searched for it online, but could find nothing other than a few Facebook mentions — apparently, it had great jazz sessions on Sunday afternoons.)
Update! My cousin Sheena just let me know that when the restaurant closed (though I still don’t know when), it gave out the popular cheese recipe to customers as a way of saying thank you. Little did they know it would take on a life of its own in the Seavey family! Thanks, Sheena!
After making the dip for myself, for the first time soon after she gave me the recipe, and most recently over the weekend, I’m glad to say that I am officially on board the Wagon Wheels Dip train. This stuff is good.
To make it, you first blend together cream cheese, ketchup, and mayonnaise. If you want a smooth consistency, it’s best to use an electric mixer. If you want it a little chunky, use something like a fork or wooden spoon. I like it smooth (lumps of cream cheese do not work for me), but I’ve since learned that Nana made it more on the lumpy side.
Then, combine green peppers, sweet pickles, stuffed olives, onion, and garlic in a food processor or food mill (if you’ve got one, and if you’re into food mills). Again, you can choose your consistency here. The recipe didn’t specify, so I usually pulse mine until it’s like fine relish.
If you like the dip smooth, you’ll want to follow my photos. If you don’t, you’ll want to leave things lumpier and chunkier.
After giving the “relish” a thorough draining to get rid of excess liquid, combine it with the cream cheese mixture, plus a tablespoon of horseradish, dash of Worcestershire sauce, and pinch of dry mustard, then chill — at least overnight.
At this point, you’ll realize that this dip is never going to win any beauty contests. It looks like Silly Putty studded with flecks of green. When I made it for the first time a few years ago, I texted a worried photo to my youngest sisters that had grown up eating it, to make sure it looked right. They assured me it would pass, with one adding, “It’s all about the taste — just close your eyes while you’re eating it!”
I actually intended to do a post on this recipe several years ago (back in 2012, according to my Drafts folder), but the photos were so terrible I kept putting it off until I could re-take them. This week, while still too late, will have to do.
“Serve on Melba rounds or crackers” the card instructs, so I do.
Love you, Nana. I have so many warm memories of watching for the cuckoo clock and reading Little Golden Books on Dolly Road when I was little, exchanging dozens of lively letters with you when I was in college (your holiday care packages full of individually wrapped baked goods were remarkable), and I’m especially grateful for our recent visits. Rest easy, pour yourself a cocktail, and give Grampa a hug for me. Until we meet again…
In your honor, next time I’ll make it
This recipe makes a lot. Cut it in half for smaller crowds, or double to share the leftovers.
Shirley’s Pepper Cheese Dip (Wagon Wheels Dip)
1 lb. cream cheese, softened (2 8 oz. packages)
2 tablespoons light cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup ketchup
Dash of paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
2 small green peppers – seeded, stemmed, and roughly chopped
1 small onion or 1/2 a large onion, roughly chopped
1/2 cup sweet pickles (gherkins), roughly chopped
1/2 cup stuffed green olives
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Pinch of dry mustard
In a medium bowl, thin the softened cream cheese with the light cream, then add the mayonnaise, ketchup, paprika. Combine, using a fork or an electric mixer, until it reaches your desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste, plus a dash of paprika. Set aside.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the green pepper, onion, pickles, olives, and garlic. Pulse a few times, or until or until it reaches your desired consistency. Drain the excess liquid from the relish mixture by pressing it into a fine-mesh strainer or wrapping it in paper towels.
Once drained, transfer the relish mixture to the cheese mixture, then add the horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and dry mustard. Blend thoroughly, then refrigerate until ready to serve. The dip tastes best if it’s had a day or two to ripen.
Serve on Melba rounds or crackers.
Yield: 5 cups