How I Ceased Being a Normal Person About Cheese
The version of me who was enchanted by pepper jack is now dead.
I used to be a normal person. Relatively so, anyway.
Whenever someone wearing an apron would ask, “Do you want cheese with that?” I’d say things like, “Sure” and “Obviously.” You know—normal stuff.
When that question comes up now, though, well, I mostly still say those things, but only after performing some milky calculus.
Back when I was a civilian, I’d walk into a corner deli for a breakfast sandwich and slobber over sweaty slabs of Velveeta stacked into lactic ziggurats. My fridge was never without pepper jack, the most exotic cheese in my repertoire at the time, along with Trader Joe’s burrata, its squishy center erupting in a sluicing gush like a McGriddles.
Cheese was my all-hours food, a welcome guest in any meal and something to mindlessly gnaw on during Fleabag. Whenever I saw a pristine party tray packed with toothpick-lanced Colby cubes, I greeted it as warmly as a friend. Possibly warmer.
Cheese was the deal breaker that made veganism a fridge too far. Eggs, I could do without if need be; cheese, absolutely not. It could only be stripped from my life, much like the internet, in the event of some unspeakable global tragedy, possibly one involving zombies.
And somehow it never occurred to me back then that I had only glimpsed a tiny wedge of the greater sprawling cheesescape through a keyhole, possibly while squinting.
There were hints. Clues. Hansel and Gretel–esque blue cheese crumbles marking a path not yet taken. One night, I invited a few friends over for a wine and cheese party like grown adults. I went to the nearest overpriced gentrification hut in Crown Heights and picked up five vacuum-sealed wedges—Gouda, Brie, Jarlsberg, and both extra sharp and garlic cheddar—pairing them with Rosemary and Olive Oil Triscuits. (At that point, I was miles away from knowing that cheese people consider flavored crackers a class A food felony.) After I’d proudly enshrined this murderer’s row of curds on Instagram, we began to devour it. Five minutes later, I noticed a withering comment a bartender friend had left beneath the photo: “Basicass cheese plate.”
Basic? Did he not see there were five cheeses?
The heckle stung. Who was this guy to tell me—an enthusiastic and inexhaustible cheese-lover—that I was doing something wrong? And which missing cheese did he think would elevate my board to the level of respectability? Was it Manchego? Rather than mull it over any further, I let the offending comment slip my mind and went back to living my basic-ass cheese life.
For a while, anyway.
The version of me who was enchanted by pepper jack is now dead. It’s not that I no longer eat anything less than the world’s finest cheese at all times; it’s that I can’t pretend not to be aware of it. That’s the thing about cheese snobbery: Once you’ve opened Pandora’s pantry, it remains open. You might as well try putting Cheez Whiz back in the can.
I will never again eat an omelet without knowing how amazing Gruyère d’Alpage would taste slowly sinking into it, like a fluffed bedsheet collapsing onto a pillowy pile of eggs. I have a hard time looking at green cylinder Parmesan, the scentless saw dust inside practically mocking Giorgio Cravero’s Parmigiano Reggiano—a cheese comprised entirely of guitar solos. I can’t eat a grilled cheese sandwich without wishing molten Clothbound cheddar were in the middle, maybe with some Roquefort mixed in, too, for contrast and spice.
Once you know about knee-buckling cheese, you can’t unknow it. You can try to ignore its salty siren song, but your taste buds won’t let you forget it.
Why would anyone ever want to forget cheese, though?
Here's how I ceased to be a normal person.
It all started when I wanted to surprise my wife for Valentine’s Day. Being a continuously surprising partner is hard work. If two people stick together for a certain number of years—let’s call it five—they start telegraphing their every move like weary prizefighters. Each knows what to expect from the other, and comes to rely on it in a way, but they’re always grateful for up ended expectations. Otherwise it all starts to feel like choreography. By early 2018, I’d already surprised my wife, Gabi, with just about every blowyou-away vegetarian restaurant in New York, over various Valentine’s Days and the mere virtue of living in one of the world’s greatest food cities. Nonedible romantic gestures were part of the drill, too—a mechanical bull ride, maybe, or a haunted house that was open in February for some reason—but an event meal was central to the experience. And it was getting harder to find an herbivore-friendly one in uncharted territory.
Before I started strategizing that year’s Hallmark holiday, I’d never heard of Murray’s, the Bleecker Street bulwark of New York’s indigenous cheese scene. Murray’s is about as famous as a cheese shop can get. It began life as an egg and dairy wholesaler in 1940 and evolved into one of America’s most prominent cheese brands, with kiosks in 400-plus Kroger supermarkets nationwide. But to whom exactly is a famous cheese shop famous? Certainly not me at the time.
I first heard of Murray’s in an online ad touting the Most Decadent Valentine’s Day Ever.
“We’re pulling out all the stops for this one-of-a-kind, first-in-class, top-ofthe-line tasting event,” the ad promised. “Nothing— and we mean nothing—is too good for our guests.”
The assurance of food that verged on being too good for my wife was quite a hook. It would be a guided tasting through the shop’s top-shelf inventory, paired with equally impressive wine and a smattering of luxury goodies. The romantic gesture and the food itself were baked into one cheesy package. It was just what I was looking for—a bougie jackpot.
Excerpted from American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World by Joe Berkowitz with permission from Harper Perennial.