I love dairy. Cheese is but one god in my lactic pantheon, but oh what a god. One of many flavors and types. Like mythologies, cheese has minor deities of both good and evil. Extra sharp cheddar: good. The wedge of horror Jon’s parents tried to pawn off on me that smelled like an asslip and toejam sandwich: evil.
Years ago my mother, who’s not slender, for some odd reason decided to fat free just about that mysterious time in our culture when instead of eating less, it was universally decided that we’d remove the fat from our favorite foods, replacing them with hydrogenated solids for bulk, then doubling the salt and sugar content so they wouldn’t taste completely like ass. Into our house came a seemingly innocuous package of fat free, all vegetable cheese slices. How interesting! Isn’t science so darn clever. A quick scan of the nutrition info (this is back in the dark ages of nutritional packaging, circa 1991, when labeling was bereft of the breakdown of fats, percentages of whatnot and recommendations of this and that. How far we haven’t come.) revealed a perfect health food. No fat, no calories, no nothing really, including nutrition. It was like solidified diet soda! Cheese flavored at that! How awesome. What better way to take advantages of this cheese from the future than to slap it on some hamburgers of some 30% fat!!! Guilt-free at last, as we would adorn them each with a slice of beneficial living. Into the broiler went those cows that gave their last full measure of devotion to my lunch, the slow crisp and sizzle filling our house with the aroma of its smoky drip and a mouthwatering indifference to the suffering of animals. Browning and popping, the time came to flip the burgers and adorn them with orange-yellow absolution. I did so, gleefully braving the spattering grease, which spat and fussed as if filled with the angry spirits of all wronged bovines. On went the miracle cheese product, glowing like the promise of the 21st century in the sultry radiance of the broiling element.
Is there anything in human history quite like melted cheese? I think not. For what would pizza be without cheese (aside from healthy, I mean) but a half-assed sandwich? It is only on Christmas morn that children’s faces light brighter than when a string of steaming white reaches from a slice to cling to their lips. Who of us has not pursed their lips and pulled away the slice to test the stretch of its gooey succulence? And think well on the mighty quesadilla, a southwestern invention. It’s very name glorifies the nobility of its flavors: from the Spanish, Queso, meaning “cheese” and dilla, meaning “stuff my bad ass with.” Ham and no cheese is simply tragic pork on rye. A baked potato is blasphemy unless its holy trinity is fulfilled: Butter, Sour Cream and CHEESE. How much broccoli or cauliflower would never have been eaten by children, leading to malnutrition in our great nation, if not seduced by sauces of creamy, silky cheese. Can you even imagine how history would have changed without macaroni and cheese? Hitler would have won the war.
Block cheese, shredded cheese, canned cheese, cheese stuffed with peppers and peppers stuffed with cheese, soft cheese, hard cheese, cheese blends, why cheese shows the way, exemplifying the harmony achieved in diversity. Can we be any less than this holy thing? And when one cries about the spiritual damage we do ourselves by not only eating animals but robbing from them as well, well, I say unto you, where else is the cycle of life completed, what else is the essence of balance and a return to harmony, than when in nourishment to my poor soul, a cow is once again whole, ready to ascend to whatever bliss a cow’s soul may know, when reunited is their flesh and their milk. In the end we give back what was taken. In fact, every burger without cheese (called a hamburger no less, a further insult to bovine sacrifice) is a cow’s soul damned to wander the earth. Perhaps you too have heard the pitiful mooing on a dark night. Know the horror cheeselessness has wrought. Yes, I too weep my friends.
But to this yin if of course a yang. Cheese is fat. Sure, salt, enzymes and rennet too, but the overwhelming majority is fat. And too much of a good thing is indeed too much. Moderation is always an ideal philosophy, but perhaps we clever animals can use our wits to have the sin without actually sinning.
So, we find ourselves back in my mother’s kitchen with me preparing the buns for our lunch while the James T. Kirk of cheese is…
Not melting. Hmmm, gee it’s been five minutes already. Yeah, uh huh, the broiler’s on, about 550 degrees and damn, that stuff isn’t even breaking a sweat! No drooping, no discoloring or oil separating, all the signs of imminent cheese melting simply aren’t there. Puzzling. Well it should be fine, I’m sure. It’ll be at least five more minutes before the burgers are ready anyway, it’ll melt by then.
Five minutes later…holy crap. It’s still there, untouched, like saints in a bonfire. Still five more minutes later, smoke from the drip pan is rolling from the broiler, collecting just below the kitchen ceiling like a tempest of saturated fat. There’s nothing for it; the burgers must come out or doom will befall our lunch. A deep breath and I reached in, eyes stinging from the billowing wrath of all cow gods from antiquity, pull our now very done burgers from the shimmering heat, before a reddish-golden comfort, now the color of strife one sees in the eyes Hollywood demons and placed the tray on the stove for inspection.
My mother and I stood in shocked silence. Still wroth, the burgers sizzled angrily, but the cheese, oh the humanities the cheese! Unmelted. Untouched. The once warm glow of nutritional redemption had become the yellowed disdain of bad teeth, or the haughty orange of an ancient Cheeto excavated from a couch cushion. Science had indeed produced a miracle, but not the one we had pinned our lunch, our health, our very dreams of body-mass index on. It had produced an abomination of physics, an aberration of natural law, a mote in God’s eye. What have we done, my mother and I silently asked ourselves.
Tentatively, I reached out. To one side our buns slowly collapsed under the weight of forgotten mustard and mayonnaise, as if cringing from the slices of hellspawn. I touched the mysterious slice before me. It was cool to the touch even after the fires of our oven. My mind jerked to the descriptions of Sauron’s Ring by Tolkien and I despaired. I steeled myself and broke off (yes, broke, for the firmness of the slice had been unaffected by the heat, as if the monstrosity had been newly freed from the wrap after tenure in the fridge) a small piece of Newton’s Bane. Wide-eyed, my mother watched as I brought the small, yet potent chip of unknown to my lips. Years later, she would recall how she feared this would be her last view of her brave son. Trembling, I put the chip into my mouth and bit down.
It all became clear in a shattering instance of epiphany. Firm, only somewhat yielding, the chip was pulverized by my chewing. No smooth melting, no silky dissolve characteristic of real cheese, the texture of warm plastic was apparent. The taste, to this day is difficult to describe, but the best I can do it that it tasted like cardboard feels. Uncomfortable and indifferent. Yes, indeed it was from the future, but a terrible apocalyptic one, a future gone wrong, wherein Vegans had wrested nutritional control of the world and sated the ignorant masses with inferior replications of their misguided tastes. A horrible, barren world of butterless brown rice, unseasoned legumes and the death penalty for creating salted pork; a caloric 1984, where Ray Croc sits side by side with Satan on the throne of evil. I felt like Sarah Conner to this product’s nutritional Terminator and I wondered.
We all too easily peeled off the waxen offenses, grabbed the remainder of the package from the refrigerator and removed them all to the outside trash, too shaken, too afraid of this harbinger of a terrible future of polyunsaturated fascism. Melting some pepper jack in a saucepan on the stove, thinned with copious amounts of whole milk and a generous glob of sour cream, I pondered our recent experience while I stirred the lactose talisman to soul buffering smoothness. Had this mishap of science fallen into our hands as a warning, or a prophecy? I could still feel its malevolent presence outside, only to be relieved of it in two days when the trash would be collected. I did not sleep well those two nights and still felt a small pressure of fear that slowly mellowed to a nameless unease that haunts me to this day.
Years later I discovered the disturbing persistence of this dire messenger. A careful examination of the launch video reveals the “foam” that broke off and doomed the shuttle Columbia was in fact several packages of the same cheese that had resisted all my powers of cooking as well as reason. Here, some 20 years later, science had indeed created the very substance so horrifying in my youth, applied in a noble and innocent application. I shuddered, remembering the certainty of that awful future I glimpsed on that terrifying day, in both hope and dread. Do we create the future or are we doomed to certainty? As I curl up at night, munching on a ham and swiss sandwich, reading Revelations from the Christian Bible, I am warmed and hopeful of images of pestilence, war and famine. A small comfort that this may yet come to pass and displace that awful vision of a true hell on earth. In Jesus name we eat bacon cheddar curly fries, amen.