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Say cheese! First annual American Cheese Month

October 1, 2011

The American Cheese Society has proclaimed October the first national American Cheese Month.

Let’s celebrate North American cheese in all its glory, they say. Let’s recognize those who make it, age it, peddle it, eat it. Let’s celebrate the coastal-grazing goats that give us the chèvres of Northern California; the cheesemakers who wash and turn and coddle their cheeses—those who bring us classic Goudas and Cheddars and blues, and those who make new magic with ancho chile or hoja santa leaves or local pear brandy. Let’s savor the cheese names that take us places: Wabash Cannnonball, Rogue River Blue, San Juaquin Gold; and thank the cheesemongers who ply us with samples.

When I learned about American Cheese Month I was tickled. You might even say rapturous. But a few weeks ago, I was reminded that cheese can be, for some, an object of fear. Death. Heights. Clowns. Cheese. This may sound silly. What could be more innocuous than a floppy, tidy, cheerfully orange slice of “American” cheese? (Scary for other reasons.) But consider this:

American cheese tastes have expanded; your average cheese tray could include a hunk of something that smells like old socks; a squat fuzzy cylinder run through with ash; a mysterious bundle wrapped in dark green leaves. We’re way beyond the simplicity of “Swiss or Jack.”

At a wedding I attended a few weeks ago, a woman sidled up to me at the cheese table, which was beautifully spread with at least six different, unusual cheeses. She had been watching me for a few minutes. “You seem to know what you’re doing,” she said. “Will you help me?” She flushed slightly.

Cheese can leave people at a loss. Which rinds can you eat and which do you not? Will everyone laugh if I cut this wedge wrong? Eat a cheese past its prime, and a searing ammoniac flavor could take your breath away and leave you grimacing. So what’s the line between ambrosia and ammonia?

So, yes, cheese can be scary. All the more reason to spend time discovering its glories this October. I say, let this be a month of reveling in new tastes and new stories.

Bring on the cheese!

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