You can call me Mouse-In-The-House. It’s a nickname I own with honor. There is no cheese I won't try and there has yet to be one I don't adore. If asked what I wanted for my last meal, it would be a wheel of unpasteurized triple-crème brie, a baguette made by Bess and a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild Red. Don't care which Rothschild red or which brie from France because every one of both is stellar.
I grew up on the usual suspects, Kraft American Singles and Kraft Mac and Cheese and Mom's Cheesy potatoes. These consisted of Ore Ida frozen diced potatoes – Mom preferred those because they "stood up better than the hash browns" – Campbell's Cream of Chicken Soup, Sour Cream, torn up Kraft American slices and a crunched up topping of some sort…maybe corn flakes? The memory is hazy, maybe I’ve blocked it. Special occasions warranted Cracker Barrel. I was charged with the appetizers, a toothpick-speared green olive with pimento into a cube of Cracker Barrel Sharp Cheddar as it sat atop of a Ritz cracker. Now never mind that the very engineering of this item required two hands which is not the goal of an appetizer. Nope. Never you mind, that is how we do it and that's all there is to it.
When I was going to college at UMKC, my apartment had a sunporch I would rent out as a bedroom to traveling artists who came to work at Missouri Repertory Theatre, where I also worked. A British actress was staying with me and I had a friend over. When I offered them some cheese, they had a good chuckle at my Cracker Barrel Sharp Cheddar. To quote: "She thinks that cheese!" It's funny the things that stick with you. It's not that they were wrong. However, it did hurt my feelings, that's without any doubt. Good thing she didn’t know I also have a hankering for red wine cheese balls whenever ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ plays!
I remember coming around to the finer cheeses quite slowly. On the main, I'd be at a party and there would be a cheese tray with some yummies. Maybe a brie, maybe a cheddar, always a swiss it seemed. If the situation was right, my host would be riddled with questions about their cheese choices. I'm sure they loved that! When living in San Francisco, I took a day trip to Napa and stopped at the Oakville Grocery for a picnic lunch, when it was still an actual grocery full of one of a kind local cheeses and meats. I remember tasting Cowgirl Creamery Mt Tam and Point Reyes Blue for the first time and long before commercially available. I bought way too much cheese that day. So much that we had a picnic lunch at a Gundlach Bundschu, two cheese soup recipes and a from-scratch mac and cheese that week. That’s officially too much cheese.
By the time, 15 years later, I met Bess and we were spending 10 days in Paris, cheese was quite high on my list. It was so high, in fact, that I knew, in the days long before the increased security brought on by world events, I'd be attempting to sneak some cheese home. All soft cheeses sold in the US must be pasteurized. That is the act of boiling the milk until it is believed no bacteria can remain and frankly until most the enormous flavor of the cheese is lost. Hard cheeses such as pecorino or parmesan do not require this but it is the soft cheeses that own my heart. Most high-quality soft cheeses from Europe use a thermalization process. This is lower heat for a longer time than pasteurization. To facilitate my crime-to-be, I packed Victoria's Secret drawer paper. Yep, do you remember it? It was like a thousand stinky sachets in a puffy rolled sheet that you were to use to line the drawer that held your unmentionables. Yes, I brought a roll with me to illegally transport stinky cheeses like said triple crème brie for my last supper, camembert, munster and even a morbier. It was the 10 days before Christmas and it seemed to me that the entire city was just one big hub of friendly happiness. I learned to say “Joyeux Noel” with aplomb and while we had one of the most expensive meals of our lives, we ate most of the time quite cheaply with just a baguette from the boulangerie, some small bits of cheese from the fromagerie, and maybe a pate and an everyday bottle of wine from the corner store. When we had leftover cheeses, we would hang them on the outer window handle of our attic room looking out at Notre Dame.
Over our stay we would make our purchases that were to return home, the shop owners so patient with our feeble attempts at French. I swear Bess almost 'turtled' several times due to the weight of the backpack. She also bought several pairs of shoes, as is her way. On Christmas eve, we walked the snowy city streets, stopped into tiny churches preparing for midnight mass, saw the spectacle of TV cameras at Notre Dame and had an authentically delicious Greek dinner at wooden tables in a neighborhood joint. We also hailed our first cab of the 10 days and requested that driver take us to all the famous spots, best vantage point to take photos please, one after the other as we'd actually made it to none of them.
By the time we returned to our room it was around 2am. We were to be up by 5am to have plenty of time to make a 9am flight home and still make it to Bess's family's Christmas dinner. I'm fairly sure I was the one that suggested we stay up but Bess was confident we could nap and be refreshed. At 7am the banging came at the door. The frantic front desk clerk had been trying to ring us since 5am and was beside himself that we were going to miss our flight. I do not remember much as we hurled clothes into our bags except that I remember looking over at Bess as she was wrapping one of her new pairs of shoes in the sachet paper? What? But no time. I kissed the desk clerk’s cheek with unbrushed morning breath and we flung ourselves into cab in nothing more than 10 minutes. Boarding was always harrowing as Bess was traveling on her Canadian passport, they separated us and asked what was in our bags. I started yammering about a poster we'd purchased and then realized we'd forgotten our stash of cheeses! I believe we crossed the plane threshold with about 5 minutes to spare. I asked for water. The flight attendant didn't just bring us little cups...she brought us a liter of water. Flight attendants, back in that day, used to be happy and they'd be doubly happy for the double-time they'd earn for the easy flights such as Christmas day.
Once in the air, there was some kind of food and a lovely male attendant just kept dropping off tiny bottles of vodka and tomato juice. Hair of the dog, you know. Somewhere, as I was nodding off to sleep, I said to Bess, "Why did you wrap your shoes in the stinky shelf paper?" "It wasn't the shoes,” She replied. “It was the shoebox and it's full of the cheeses." I fell happily into slumber.
We've taken any number of trips since then and experienced more worldly cheeses, including even an amazing facility tour and lunch at Il Forteto just outside of Florence. We've been lucky enough to have the amazing Feta of Greece while in the islands, Soft Pecorino and the silky Fontina in Italy, and, of course, Cheddar in England. We've enjoyed some of the great cheeses coming out of Wisconsin and Northern California. We have a dear friend who is an importer and distributor for some of the finest cheeses in the world and have cooked for the head cheese buyers at chains like Whole Foods and Central Market.
In short, you might want to call me a Cheesie instead of Foodie. I do truly love them all. However, the tastes of childhood are not easily dislodged and so, I guarantee you, as soon as the air chills and holiday is upon us, I'll be sidled up to my cheese ball and my Cracker Barrel without one iota of embarrassment or one lick of hesitation.