Reading a New York Times article on the USDA’s mixed signals about cheese made me think about my own conflicting cheese emotions. The USDA, like a person with the two hemispheres of his brain separated, tells us “Eat less fat—don’t have so much cheese!” and at the same time encouraged Dominoes to boost sales by adding 40 percent more cheese to their pizzas. Apparently, after convincing the American public to lower our fat intake, there’s a surplus of dairy fat. I went through a militant low-fat phase in my teens and twenties, but I have since rebounded, recently serving a French onion soup that made a serious dent in our national dairy fat glut.
In weak moments, pondering the saturated fat I’m eating in dairy products, I consider going vegan. I wouldn’t miss milk too much since I don’t drink it and rarely eat cold cereal; olive oil would do instead of butter most of the time; I’d definitely lose summer weight if I stayed away from ice cream; and I guess I’d learn to live without yogurt or honey. But would life be worthwhile without cheese? I mean real cheese, not the abomination known as soy cheese.
Sorry vegan friends: soy cheese is not cheese any more than are American cheese-flavored slices or Nabisco Handi-Snacks Crackers-n-Cheez. Soy cheese, like other processed cheese-food-products is not even food. I say, either eat cheese or don’t. Why buy a rubbery, vaguely cheese-flavored pretend cheese—filled with partially hydrogenated soybean oil, maltodextrin, potato flakes, guar gum and carrageenan—and then melt that onto your otherwise appetizing food? Maybe those ingredients are not necessarily bad for you, but neither are they food.
Real cheese is generally made out of milk, salt, enzymes, microbes and rennet—a product that I just learned traditionally comes from calves stomachs, so not all cheese is vegetarian. Who knew? Cheese can also be made with vegetable rennet, though.
I didn’t used to love cheese, but that’s because I used to think that American cheese and fat-free cheese were kinds of cheeses. Once I let go of those notions, I discovered the sinful pleasures of crumbly sharp cheddar, stinky blue cheeses that smell like feet, mild manchego and fresh mozzerella, which could not be mistaken for a bouncy ball. I still don’t like Swiss cheese, but Gruyere melted over French onion soup is transcendent—and must amply cover the entire surface of the soup bowl, preferably spilling over the edge. I went to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy crocks for my French onion soup but all I found were white ones (not the traditional brown ones in my memory) with a photo on front that was a deal breaker: a light sprinkle of cheese topped the French onion soup. Heresy!
The French know what they’re talking about when it comes to cheese. There’s a great scene in the PBS documentary “The Persuaders” when marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille discusses the difference between French and American attitudes towards cheese:
“I know that in America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge. I know the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is the way you market cheese in America.”
A French company had trouble marketing cheese in America because they could not understand that for germaphobic Americans, safety was more important than taste.
I’d like to lean towards the French side here, because I see our obsession with sterile food as ridiculous and takes away from flavor and enjoyment. But then I stick the cheese into a Ziploc bag in the frig because I’m afraid of mold. I’ve been known to throw out gorgonzola when it gets too blue. Maybe that’s normal. Rapaille says that more French die from cheese than Americans; it’s a question of priorities.
That could apply to cheese eating in general. In 2003, the French consumed 24 kg of cheese per capita, while Americans trailed at 15 kg per person, according to a post on Ranking America (data from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations). And the French are certainly not fatter nor more afflicted by coronary disease.
So I’m not becoming a vegan and I’m not stopping the cheese habit. In fact, there’s some aged cheddar in the frig calling my name.