My Life in Cheese
Allison Wilson Lee
© Copyright 2018 by Allison Wilson Lee
Food plays a significant role in our cultures, our families, and our memories. In this story--My Life in Cheese--I take you on a journey using my various experiences with cheese as mile markers, from being allergic to dairy to eating cheese on multiple continents.When I was twenty years old, I spent the summer in New York with other college students from around the U.S. working with the physically poor, the homeless, and inner-city children. On the applications we submitted to join this project, we were each asked to share a fun fact about ourselves. I chose to share this one: My favorite food is hot pepper Monterey Jack cheese. But my adoration of cheese began long before I started college.
I suffered from dairy allergies as a young child—along with allergies to chocolate, strawberries, artificial colors and flavors, and grass. I ate some clover with my friend Eva once in the yard of our daycare, but I never recall attempting to eat grass. But grass on my skin did trigger an allergic reaction. Thankfully, the grass allergy seemed to affect only my skin. My other allergies, however, impacted lots of other parts of me. But after receiving allergy shots (bi-weekly for one year, and then weekly for two years) and perhaps just growing into my body, I outgrew my allergies. Now I could drink chocolate milk in the lunchroom with my friends at school. I could have an ice cream cone. I tried cottage cheese and yogurt and liked them both. And I could also eat cheese.
Around that time, my parents started a new Christmas tradition for my siblings and me: They included a can of squirt cheese (or, should I say, “cheese”) in our Christmas stockings. We also received little plastic eggs of Silly Putty and some candy and some other items, but we counted on—and looked forward to—that aerosol can of cheese. We loved smearing it on crackers. I even ate it on Kit Kat candy bars in high school while riding the school bus to a marching band contest once. During this season of life, I would also spend the night at my friend Jennifer’s house once in a while, where we would stay up late and watch “Friday Night Videos” and eat chunks of Velveeta that we would half-slice, half-tear off the big yellow-orange block with a butter knife. I remember my first wide-eyed experience with Velveeta—it was a new kind of cheese.
Eventually, though, my brothers and sister and I developed more sophisticated tastes. Our parents switched out the blaze-orange spray cheese for more refined selections with which to surprise us on Christmas morning: Stilton with blueberries, Havarti with dill. As a teenager intent on “finding myself,” I experimented with being a vegetarian. But I continued to eat dairy—especially our Christmas cheese. And especially my mama’s homemade pimiento cheese. During my summer in New York as a twenty-year-old, I particularly missed Mama’s pimiento cheese, so perfect on a sandwich with a generous smear of mayonnaise. I made a “to do” list of things I wanted to enjoy when I returned from New York City; “eat pimiento cheese” was tops on the list.
I also spent the following summer away from home. I had just finished my junior year of college, and I traveled to Hungary to tutor Hungarian high school and college students at an English language camp. We lived in a dorm and ate cafeteria food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As a vegetarian (still), I struggled to find enough to eat. I supplemented the dorm meals with an abundant supply of bananas, pretzels, and chocolate bought at the local shops, not to mention an insanely cheap and ridiculously heavenly Hungarian ice cream that we bought triple-scoops at a time. We often went out to restaurants during the weekends, but most of the ones nearby served nothing but pizza. We were in a resort town, after all. But occasionally, we’d pick a classier place and get dressed up to go out to eat. At this more up-scale place, I would invariably choose a dish that never failed to delight me—breaded and fried Camembert cheese served with a fruity compote (and usually a cucumber “salad” that consisted of, well, cucumbers). I sometimes felt my vegetarian heart would weep with gratitude at getting a delicious, full meal that didn’t require me to pick out any meat.
After that summer ended and I journeyed back to my college apartment, I began making plans for after graduation. I received my diploma and then spent the summer at home, shucking corn from my parents’ garden and preparing to spend the next year living in Romania. When I arrived in Eastern Europe as a twenty-two year-old, I was in many ways still a kid—and also still a vegetarian. Not long after recovering from jet lag and learning how to use the tram system, I decided I’d leave behind my vegetarian ways and begin to eat meat again. I wanted to be able to eat with Romanians and to eat whatever they served me, to honor their hospitality. And I did—soups with ground beef, pork cutlets, cabbage rolls filled with spicy meat and rice and cooked in oil.
I also learned to grocery shop for myself and to cook—not just whatever kept me full between classes and biology lab, but real meals. I was growing up. And living in Romania was really growing on me. In the plaza behind my apartment building, I found the store that most closely resembled what I would call a grocery store. At that store, I found some cheese—MY cheese. It was expensive by Romanian standards back then, which is to say, less than a dollar a pop, and it was sold from the deli case—not just out where any old shopper could pick it up. Although it’s been almost twenty years since I’ve eaten it, I can still recall its creamy texture and smoky flavor, the way it was braided into a rope resembling a loaf of brioche. In English, the name of the cheese translates to “Mountain Cheese.” But the Romanian name sticks in my brain solidly, lodged up there with all my best memories of life. I bought a pack of that cheese almost every time I visited that shop.
By the time I gave away most of the clothes I’d taken to Romania with me and returned to the States, I had grown up—I had become a full-fledged adult. And I began to do adult things: I bought my first car, got a new job and my own apartment. I even started saving for retirement. Then I did something that felt really grown up—I got married.
Not long before my husband Mike and I celebrated our second anniversary, I left my home country to travel abroad again, only this time as part of a couple. We flew to New Zealand to live and work there for a year, an adventure for us to experience before we planned to have children. We shared a tiny studio apartment and walked almost everywhere. We did buy a car, though, and we enjoyed our weekend jaunts. We road-tripped to vineyards outside Auckland where we tasted homegrown wines, to the South Island where we took a spin in a jet boat, to the black sand shores of Piha Beach not far from our little home. On our way back from a beautiful weekend camping and hiking on the Coromandel Peninsula, we stopped at a small, lushly green estate called Matatoki Farm. This dairy farm made cheese, several kinds, in fact. And for a reasonable price, one could sample their cheeses right at the farm. My husband and I capped off that glorious, sun-drenched weekend by enjoying a cheese board—with some crackers and fruit on the side—while sitting at an umbrella-covered picnic table near the entrance to the farm. As the farmer explained to us the variety of cheeses she was offering that day, chickens meandered around our feet. My favorite cheese was the smoked gouda (the farmer pronounced it “gow-da”). We ate every bit and may have even licked our fingers to wipe up any cheese crumbs left on the board. We sighed the sigh of those with happy tummies and then finished our drive on the left-hand side of the road back home to Auckland.
Months later, we said our good-byes to friends and co-workers who had come to the airport to see us off. We left with overly stuffed luggage and overly stuffed pockets (the suitcases can hold only so much, after all) and deliciously stuffed memories of New Zealand—memories of the people, the scenery, the cheese.
My husband and I soon added two little boys to our family after returning from overseas. Thankfully, neither of my children suffers from food allergies. So our family eats plenty of dairy, including copious amounts of cheese. One year, my men folk took me out to a restaurant that served only grilled cheese sandwiches to celebrate Mother’s Day. And on my weekly grocery list, you can almost always find “Cheese x 4” written on the scrap of paper where I have scrawled the items I need to purchase.
Although he didn’t consume a great deal of cheese before we got married (what with being Asian and all), my husband now eats almost as much cheese as I do. Almost—but not quite. And sometimes, when my husband takes a turn at grocery shopping, he returns with all four blocks of cheese plus a little extra just for me—a packet of hot pepper Monterey Jack.
Allison Wilson Lee serves with interdenominational ministry Cru--writing and editing--while also home schooling her two sons. She earned a degree in Environmental Biology but is more proud of having donated over 2 gallons of breast milk. She blogs at www.presentmindedly.wordpress.com and has been published in a variety of anthologies and magazines, as well as the best seller Chicken Soup for the Soul: Random acts of Kindness.