Last week I provided some interesting historical tidbits about cheese and how I became a Cheesehead. This week I want to share a few more personal anecdotes. As far back as I can remember I have always been fond of cheese. Cheese was a staple at my house when I was growing up. Nothing fancy, mind you, but respectable cheeses. I’m not talking Velvetta and Cheese-Whiz (which I am happy to ascribe to French origins), but your generic cheddars and Swiss cheeses.
Cheese was always on the table at my maternal grandparents’ Michigan farmstead regardless of the meal being served. I remember it melted over toast at breakfast, and my grandmother applied generous slices to my sandwiches which went into my lunch pail before I headed off to Acorn School. A block of cheese was back on the table when supper was ready and I always had a slice or two with whatever was being served that night. My paternal grandparents lived in a small town not far from the farmstead, and they always served cheese with their meals. I also enjoyed sneaking into their refrigerator to snitch a few pieces in between meals. The candy was always out of reach and dealt out in small portions at certain times. But cheese . . . cheese was OK! Nothing wrong with eating cheese. It was good for you . . . helped make a body strong, a mind sharp. So I always associated cheese with my grandparents. Go visit them and you get to eat cheese pretty much any time you want.
The last time I saw my paternal grandparents was during the spring of 1974. I was in graduate school at the University of Arizona, and I spent my spring break with them in San Diego where they settled in their later years. At the end of my week-long visit (yes, cheese was on the table every day), my grandmother packed some sandwiches for me for the long trip back to Tucson. Each contained a generous slab of cheese. Right before I left, my grandfather stuffed a brown paper package into my pack. “I wanted to give you something I know you will like,” he said as he patted me on the shoulder. When I got back to my apartment later than night I opened the package and found a large wheel of Wisconsin cheddar. It was a final gift passed from one generation to another. They watched me grow up just as they watched me drive away that final time. They knew me. So it is not hard to understand how I became a Cheesehead. I grew up understanding that cheese was a part of every meal. It’s like baby’s milk in my book!
I have eaten cheeses of every description from around the world (more on this in a moment), but I must confess that my favorite cheese is one that has long tugged at my heartstrings for a variety of reasons. “Bon Brie” was once produced by a small independent cheesemaker in Mapleton, Wisconsin. We would frequently drive out there on weekends to pick up a five-pound block wrapped in red and silver foil. I loved the smell of the old barn where the cheese was produced and stored. I can smell it now as I sit here writing this. It never really goes away. When I went off to college in Florida, my parents would occasionally send me a care package, and it would always contain some Bon Brie Cheese from Mapleton, still wrapped in that familiar red and silver foil. During the year I lived and studied in Germany I received additional packages from home . . . all containing some “Bon Brie.” I received an entire five-pound block for Christmas, and my German friends could not understand why I would want cheese from America when there were so many fine cheeses to be had locally. If someone is not a Cheesehead, they can never hope to understand. “Bon Brie Cheese” evokes a lot of very special memories. Unfortunately, the cheesemaker in Mapleton went out of business a few years back. A black date on my calendar!
A couple of weeks ago I attended what has become for me an annual cheese extravaganza. Each spring for the past five or six years the National Geographic Society here in Washington, DC has sponsored an evening with Steven Jenkins, who is, without a doubt, America’s best known cheesemonger (and, in my book, an honorary Cheesehead). He shares his phenomenal knowledge of cheeses, the places they come from, and the people who produce them. The highlight of these events, however, is the opportunity to taste a wide variety of cheeses seldom seen on this side of the Big Pond due to their ephemeral nature and the cost to import them. Jenkins is always joined by master sommelier Joshua Wesson, cofounder of Best Cellars (and also an honorary Cheesehead), who presents, along with very witty repartee, an interesting selection of wines to compliment the cheeses. I recall another episode of “The West Wing” in which the still fictional Leo McGarry arrives at the White House before dawn only to complain how bad the traffic is around town. Ultimately, he is forced to detour around a police cordon at the National Geographic Society, on 16th Street, just a few blocks north of the White House. McGarry’s equally fictional deputy asks what possibly could be going on at the National Geographic Society to require a police cordon? The answer is very simple . . . the annual cheese extravaganza with Steven Jenkins and Joshua Wesson!
Writing this I suddenly feel very hungry. I think I will head down to the kitchen and prepare a cheeseboard to be served with a nice Pinot Grigio. Tonight I imagine I will dream of cheese. It won’t be the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s in my blood. In the meantime I will leave you with an interesting cheese fact which you can ponder at your discretion: Did you know that what appears to be the remains of some sort of cheese was once discovered in Egyptian tombs over 4,000 years old? And archeologists tell us that cheese was being made from cow and goat milk in Mesopotamia before 6000 BC! You can look it up!
NEXT WEEK: I will be on a well-deserved hiatus until June 7 when I return with “Zwei Smarte Boys,” a tribute to a good friend and mentor. Until then I am off on another road trip through northern New England and Québec, digging up new tales and random thoughts from the Edge of America and beyond.