Forget Thanksgiving. The most gluttonous day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, where bowl after bowl and paper plate after paper plate is filled with finger-food bacchanalia that would make even the mad genius responsible for the TGI Friday’s appetizer selection blush (and certainly the ancient Romans). And so, all week leading up to game day, we’ll be offering up our own menu of scientific investigations, origin stories and majestic feats of snacking that not even the biggest sporting event of the year can top. Read all of the stories here.
Just over two decades ago, I was playing video games in my friend Jeff’s basement when his mom, Donna, descended from the heavens (read: the first-floor kitchen) to place a chunky, reddish-white concoction before us. At first I hesitated, but Jeff put me at ease. “It’s just cream cheese and salsa all mixed together,” he explained, wielding tortilla chips in both hands. “It’s good!”
It was better than good. Something stirred deep within me, as if this sweet, sacred nectar of the Midwestern Gods had just awakened my ancestors. In the ensuing years since, I cannot count the number of times I’ve flopped 8 ounces of cream cheese into a jar of salsa, blended it together and popped it in the microwave for 30 seconds. As bleak of a mental picture as that might appear, the end result, without fail, is nothing short of life-changing.
But how can a two-ingredient dip taste so good? When faced with a Super Bowl spread of mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers and wings — what makes people (aka me) shovel a mixture that’s literally just cream cheese and salsa into their mouths like it’s water in the desert?
According to Chris Koetke, executive chef at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition and former vice president of culinary arts for Laureate International Universities, beyond the dip’s apparent simplicity is a complex fusion of acid, spice, fat and “textural dimensions.” “It’s essentially a combination of opposites where the differences complement each other in a pleasurable way,” he explains. “The acid and spice in the salsa are tempered and balanced by the fat in the cream cheese. [While] at the same time, the cream cheese adds a textural dimension that coats the mouth and helps the flavors stick around the palate longer.”
Cream cheese and salsa, then, is basically a bare-bones combination of flavors that humans have relied on for centuries. “Humans have five main tastes: bitter, salty, sweet, sour and savory,” says Jim Mumford, a nuclear engineer dedicated to reimagining healthy comfort food recipes. Save for bitter, all of those are flavors that humans have evolved to interpret as being necessary for survival, he continues, “so when balanced, having multiple of these notes create a chord of flavor that we interpret as damned delicious.”
Blending cream cheese and salsa produces a similar “chord.” “When analyzing a blend of cream cheese and salsa, you get a perfect blend of salty, sweet, sour and savory,” Mumford tells me. “The Midwest is the epicenter for tomato and cheese-based dishes — look no further than the classic casserole — so the notes that cream cheese and salsa hit aren’t only evolutionarily perfect, they hit a nostalgic comfort zone as well.”
Though Donna graciously introduced me to the dip that fateful afternoon, she doesn’t take credit for it. She had learned the recipe from a former colleague at the bank where she worked. That said, she assures me that the salsa and cream cheese combo has been “enjoyed by everyone I’ve made it for and shared it with.”
But even better — and maybe even more important than the Symphony No. 9 of acid, fat, spice and dairy that the cream cheese and salsa inspires — is just how simple it is to make. “It’s the easiest recipe in the world,” Donna tells me. “With only two ingredients, how can anyone screw it up!”