In Praise of Cheeses

I have heard a many complaints from Britons over the years about one particular type of food served over here in the grand old U.S. of A. That, my friends, is cheese. Let’s be fair; we don’t make the case for ourselves when we habitually spell cheese with a “z”.

“Try Lay’s Jalapeño Chocolate Cheez-ee Pork Rinds! They’re Kosher!”

However, I also think we are not given a fair shake in this department. Lots of Britons go to the mainstream tourist places and frequent the restaurants that most of the locals avoid because tourists eat there. They have these burgers covered with vulcanized, day-glo orange tar and come back wondering why we insist on putting things like that in our bodies. It’s the same in reverse when Americans go to London, find the worst possible touristy pub grub in places named The Wanker and Spittle, and come back to report how flavorless and drab the cuisine is. Not fair to either side, but par for the course, really.

Well, I am going to make the case for what we call American cheese. It has a very specific legal definition as a pasteurized processed cheese that is made up of a blend of different cheeses and does not include products like Velveeta, cheez in a spray can, Cheez Whiz, or anything like that. American cheese was made to be mild and to melt easily, so it is the ideal cheese for burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and cheese dogs, in other words perfect for fast food or the ball park concessions. OK, you can say it’s mediocre, mass-produced, holds no value as foodstuff, and is no substitute for the real thing. And you are right, but neither does Bird’s Custard Powder, so I think we are even on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now, not all American cheese is alike. This is the kind of American cheese I bring into my house because I recognize the ingredients.

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So you make your own food with ingredients you know. And having a mild cheese can enhance the flavor of the meat on a burger, if done right.

But enough about that. Believe it or not, we do make other cheeses over here, good cheeses, worthy cheeses. And I am not writing about one farm with an old goat and a cow (who just happen to be the proprietors).

The Boffin, The Sprog, and I have been fortunate to have lived in two places in close proximity to two of the main states associated with dairy. While we were living in the Boston metro, our vacations were spent in Vermont. Now that we are in Chicagoland, Wisconsin is a short drive away.

Now, I am married to Mr. “I bought my cheese at Harrod’s Food Hall while I was at university,” Mr. “I did my last year of university in France and stunk out the dorm with my sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees.” He cares deeply about his cheese. Sometimes I think he cares more about cheese than me. Nevertheless, this is a man who will happily eat domestic cheddar that has been aged for 10 years and does not pine for the corresponding namesake of his homeland. That says a lot.

Here are a couple of photos of the cheese section of my local supermarket to prove how far we have come. I apologize for the quality. The employees found me suspect and rushed me along. I guess they thought I was casing the joint for The Great Cheese Heist.

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These are just two of three high cases of the posh cheeses, and I did not take pictures of the low counters. I would estimate half the stock is domestic cheese. Regarding the U.K., you can still get some old favorites, if need be. Every so often, I indulge in a block of this…in one sitting.

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And the US is just starting to make their own distinctive kinds of cheese. An example I can give is Humboldt Fog by Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, CA. In the States, this is the one that is recommended to people when they are new to goat cheese because it is creamier and on the mild side. Our palates are changing over here, and there is more call for variety.

So, this is my travel tip. If you happen to be in the States, especially in a major metro area, instead of going to a restaurant for lunch or dinner, find a local grocery store that has the salad bar, hot food bar, sushi bar, coffee bar, biker bar etc. Those are the places that have the large cheese counters and bakeries too. Whole Foods is a national chain, but there are local stores that offer those services too. And depending what state you are in, you can get your wine or beer there. 1) You will have a variety food to choose from, not just the cheese. But try our cheese.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised.  2) You will be able to control your portion size and still get something nutritious. 3) Chances are, it will be easier on your wallet, at least by avoiding the whole tip conundrum. 4) It’s quick, if you are pressed for time.

Of course, what is on offer is going to depend heavily on where you are. I cannot guarantee that you will find a good Wisconsin Caerphilly in Paducah, Kentucky. But I know where to get great barbeque, and that is a different post.

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