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Essays

On Trying to be Cheesy

Trader Joe’s knows what they’re doing when they place the cheese aisle on the far-left of the store. Innocent shoppers cross the room like they would the page of a novel, wheeling their carts to the side. Instantly they are stared down by wheels and wedges of spoiled milk. Of course, this level of spoilage isn’t spoiled in the conventional sense, it’s actually highly desirable. Try to avoid the cheeses, turn and distract yourself with neighboring shelves of bread in every form, and they just bore holes into your back accusingly. The chunks, in their varying states, indignantly ask: what were you planning on eating that with? 

My fifth grade teacher used to quip, “Fake it til you make it!” This was puzzling to a troupe of eleven-year olds; it was as if she commended lies. Then again, the way I approach cheese could be interpreted as fake. When it comes to my relationship with the acclaimed dairy product, I often absorb the reactions of others and reflect them. In a way I’m acting. The more often I act, though, the less work it is to take on the role.

Aunt Jen and Uncle Ralph are only a few years younger than my parents, but they act like they grew up in a different era. Well-travelled and liberal on every level, they latch onto trends even before my sister and I discover them. It makes sense that they’ve been preparing charcuterie boards since I was a child.

Their first apartment, a corner property on a Philadelphia block bordering the Eastern State Penitentiary, was decked out in modern touches. They always had the same soap––Aveda Rosemary Mint––and it glistened white when you pumped it into your palm. Their sink faucets were beaming silver, their tabletop sleek, black granite. And each time we came to visit, a wooden board or ceramic plate would be centered sophisticatedly on said counter. Atop it would sit a pot of jam or honey, a cheese or three (probably from Reading Terminal Market) and at least two types of crackers. And meat! Sometimes pre-sliced, greasy pink circles that smelled pungent and left residue on whatever stylish serving tray they’d selected. Sometimes straight from the fridge with the wrapper rolled up around its sides. Aunt Jen devoured slice after slice, so I knew the circles must taste better than they looked and smelled. I trusted her. 

At home, we have cheese in one shape: rectangular prisms. As a child, vacuum-packed blocks of cheddar and Muenster were all I knew. I never paid much attention to cheese (maybe this unfortunate visual was the reason why). Every time I half-heartedly went to top a Keebler cracker with a slice, for little reason other than this was what I saw everyone else doing, I would hesitate with the butter knife poised in the air. “Which one is this again? Is it strong?” I’d ask. Sharp is the word I was searching for.

Carmen is the biggest cheese-lover I know. She can describe a wide variety of types and flavors, using their beautiful, exotic names which stretch vowels in ways I’m not used to. I comb my memories for any vague semblance of what Camembert might look like while she gushes about its flavor profiles. 

The most common time to find Carmen with a block of cheese is after dinner. Anything you eat after a full meal must be something you really love––at this point in the evening, I’m usually thinking about what form of chocolate sounds best. Not her. Carmen will crouch down to scan the lower level of our fridge door, which we have mutually agreed upon as our cornucopia of cheeses. She peels the plastic back from smoked gouda or white cheddar and cuts chunks or slivers off, depending on the type of day she’s having. I try not to stare while she chews absent-mindedly and spins around the kitchen, delaying her responsibilities for the evening. 

I once attended a charcuterie photo shoot. I helped select cheese, and then stood by and helped with whatever menial tasks I could. Most of my assistance came in the form of moral support (also in the form of behind-the-scenes polaroids).

We started with old reliable Joe and his trading stand in Brookline. Everyone was grabbing fruit and nuts and spreads, and the cart was steadily filling up, but I hesitated over every suggestion that popped into my head. I stayed mostly silent, and nodded along when anyone named a cheese product that they loved. I remember picking up Havarti, the fanciest cheese I had any experience with at the time, and searching for words to describe its rich depth. 

“This one is really good… it’s kinda sweet?” That was the best I could come up with. 

I neglected to mention that I’d made a dessert variation of a grilled cheese sandwich with it, swapping pound cake for bread and incorporating raspberries, mascarpone, and chocolate. There was a chance that the Havarti wasn’t even sweet, and I was recalling the chocolate and cake. It didn’t matter, because my partners-in-charcuterie were distracted anyway. I was poised to defend my selection, but they were dimensions away, visions of luscious pre-dinner spreads dancing in their heads.

In America, the only cheeses which we label as sharp are cheddar. Sharpness, when applied to flavor, is defined as “pungent or biting in taste.” What mysterious process could turn milk sour, but leave it safe for consumption? The answer is time.

Coagulation is a scientific process at the heart of cheese production; its products are liquid whey and solid curds. Curds are pressed into shapes which are then aged for a set period. The more time that the bacteria and coagulant have to form compounds within the curds, the more intense a cheese’s taste becomes. The unpredictability of this flavor range may explain my ambivalence toward cheese––I can never be sure exactly what I’m in for.

High School Musical’s final installment offers several bonus scenes, and one of them incorporates a line that has been etched into my mind ever since I watched it at eight years old. Troy offers Gabriella a strawberry, but she turns it away. He’s unfazed, and holds it up to her anyway.

“This might very well be the best strawberry in the whole world,” He says, staring at her with eyes that rival the innocence of a newborn chocolate lab. The face that captured the hearts of a generation. Troy’s next words come to me in the most random of instances, far more often than I’d care to admit: “But you wouldn’t know it, because you’re not gonna eat it.”

Charcuterie actually has nothing to do with cheese. The word itself is of French origin, and can be interpreted in two ways. One, as the definition of a store dedicated to the retail of these meats. Two, as the combination of two words, the first (chair) meaning flesh and the second (cuit) meaning cooked. Generation-Z has now commandeered the term, for better or for worse, and transformed it into a trend. In America today, charcuterie is misconstrued for any assortment of foods that fit together aesthetically, gastronomically, or otherwise. All one needs is a board/plate/flat surface and slanted stacks of food. I’ve seen arrangements of chicken nuggets and sauce containers mislabelled as “charcuterie.” 

Aunt Jen and Uncle Ralph have two girls, both younger than me and both with more developed palettes than I. They’ve eaten escargot in Paris. Mira, seven years my junior, loved avocado even before I knew what it was, much less how it tasted. Little Lexi once threw up because she ate too much salami off of a charcuterie platter. Both girls, like their mother, are cheese fiends. 

The French do most things better than Americans, and sharing cheese is one of them. A proper meal has a whole course devoted to cheese, falling just before dessert. The goal here is to maintain camaraderie around the table, to keep the joyful momentum going before reaching the finality of rich sweets. Also, wine is a motivator. Wine-and-cheese pairing is a faultless combination.

That being said, one can assume that if your hosts are pulling out a platter of cheese after dinner, this is a sign that they want to prolong their time with you. The minutiae of the cheese course offers even further opportunities to express affection for those you’re with. The mere act of slicing cheese is a perfect example: ideally, you should cut each sliver in the shape of the cheese’s given form, so that each person is left with the same ratio of cheese to rind. 

The first time I sat nestled on the couch with Mira and reached for a sliver of Manchego instead of spreading fig jam on a cracker, I was momentarily shocked. Then again, I’ve always heard that we are an average of the five people we spend the most time with. It just so happens that all of those people, for me, happen to be cheese lovers.

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