Ordinary Americans might argue there isn’t much to be said about cheese. That it comes in but two colors, white and orange, and is individually wrapped for convenience, as all fine foods should be.
But the average American is an unwashed creature best left to simple-minded activities like watching The Housewives of New Jersey or dabbling in Tea Party politics, rather than cutting into a subject as deep as cheese. Indeed, where cheese is concerned, I confess I am mortified to count myself among the citizens of this otherwise good and free land. For we are pathetically cheese disabled, yet foolishly proud of it, as if sporting a vacant look in one’s eyes when presented with a wedge of Stilton is a mark of cultural superiority, when in fact it’s an unfortunate sign that we’re an errant branch on the evolutionary tree that probably ought to be pruned and sawed into kindling for the overall health of the plant.
In truth, volumes could be filled with information about the complexities of cheese.
It is one of our oldest foods, for example.
Historians believe it was invented 6,000 to 8,000 years ago in the Middle East, and that the occasion of its birth was likely accidental: Perhaps a Sumerian goat herder sat in the shade to drink a refreshing swig of milk from a flask fashioned from the stomach of one of his animals but chugged a mouthful of curds and whey instead thanks to the miraculous and admittedly nauseating interaction of heat, bacteria and belly enzymes that combine to make cheese. Or maybe it was a creation born of necessity, a desperate and thankfully successful attempt to preserve the nutritionally precious yet easily spoiled milk of domesticated animals like cows, sheep and goats.
“A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality,” quipped Clifton Fadiman, the former senior editor of the acclaimed children’s publication, Cricket Magazine. Fadiman was an American who wasn’t a recognized authority on cheese, and I don’t know why he felt compelled to say anything about it at all. But I like his quote because it’s both honest and appropriately grand, and he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1993, which means he is infinitely more credible when it comes to opining about foodstuffs than, say, my uncle Earl, who subsisted largely on a diet of beer and cigarettes.
However cheese came into existence, it caught on almost as quickly as procreation, or, in a closely related development, the fermentation of grain and grape.
Today, there are about half as many varieties of cheese in the world as there are stars visible to the naked eye in the unclouded, urban night sky — some 1,000 in all. All of them share only the slightest lineage with Kraft American singles, which aren’t cheese at all, but a wondrous alchemy of milk and other ingredients processed in gleaming, stainless-steel factories to resemble cheese, if cheese shone slickly like freshly minted plastic, or was rubbery enough to be rolled into tubes and breathed through like a straw.
Real cheeses are as incompatible with American cheese as Russia and transparent government. They range from the bitter tang of English cheddar and the ammoniated creaminess of French Camembert to the nutty-sweetness of a Swiss Emmentaler and the biscuit-like, sun-dried Mongolian Byaslag made from yak milk.
However popular American cheese is — who among us hasn’t eaten it grilled between dual slices of buttered Wonder Bread, or melted in a “cup” of toasted bologna ceremoniously laid on an open-faced sandwich? — real cheeses aren’t made by chemists and served in perfectly uniform squares of bland acceptability. Real cheese is not the palate’s equivalent of Mitt Romney. Real cheeses are the pantry’s caterpillar and butterfly — repugnance metamorphasized.
My own relationship to cheese is quite positive.
Yes, there are cheeses I avoid — the gamier goat and sheep varieties like Roquefort, for example. And I’d never consider taking a bite of Spain’s infamous Casu Marzu, which is illegal in the United States because it’s ideally served while it’s still squirming with live maggots, the alternative to eating maggots alive being even less palatable, not to mention potentially fatal.
But I relish a well-aged Feta, Gruyère or Gouda, not to mention a Blue, Havarti or Parmigiano. Mozzarella is great on pizza, and Provelone on a sandwich. I once ate a Brie that was melted to pudding-like consistency in the center of a fresh-baked loaf of French bread, and considered it so tasty that I’d happily take it in place of a night of wild abandon with Charlize Theron, mostly because Charlize never calls me and my wife would emasculate me if she did, but at least partly because it was that good.
So if you’re American or you behave like an American and your experience of cheese is limited to the orange glop slopped on your nachos or the tasteless sliver hanging over the edge of a Quarter Pounder, then I urge you to visit your local specialty grocer and sample a bite of cheese that comes wrapped in cloth, or is protected by an airtight layer of wax, or is even, God forbid, hidden under an intimidating layer of mold.
Let the scales of darkness fall from your eyes — or in this case, tongue — so you might experience a brave new world of ancient culinary delights.
I hate myself.
Because I agreed to participate in 30 Days of Writing, a competitive blogging meme sponsored by my good friends Nicky and Mike at We Work For Cheese. This post is my first entry for it, and I hope you enjoyed it. But I have to tell you that I just finished doing 30 Days of Photographs with my good friend Ziva over at Ziva’s Inferno and, speaking honestly, I’m tired. I don’t know if I can last 30 days.
At least there are no rules. That means this may be my first and last post for 30 Days of Writing, and it also means I don’t have to feel bad about not listing the names of the other people who are participating in this competition just because Nicky and Mike failed to send me a complete list. I’d call them scofflaws, but if there aren’t any rules to break, then they didn’t do anything wrong and there’s no joy to be had in mocking them.
It’s hard to be a rebel when there’s nothing to rebel against, right?