Food creates memories—a childhood dish, an unforgettable restaurant experience, a family recipe made only on a special occasion. Food conjures up these memories and instigates new potential ones. No matter how elaborate—a coq au vin in Paris—or simple—Friday night custard at Culver’s, food is inextricably linked to our human experience. As the German playwright Bertolt Brecht so incisively perceived in the Three Penny Opera, “Food is the first thing, morals follow.” His twentieth century reminder of the necessity of food for human survival rings true still today.
Of course the intrinsic part of a food memory is the food itself. In Wisconsin, I like to think that we Wisconsinites pride ourselves on our cultural heritage of cheesemaking. Whether it be fresh-made, squeaky cheese curds or fresh chèvre from a local goat farm, cheese is a staple of the Wisconsin diet. What better way to create a memory of food than by dabbling in the Cheese department’s treasure chest of local, American, and world cheeses?
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
How might you create a food memory, you may ask? I am glad you asked. And I am glad I anticipated your question because . . . I have an answer. Eating winter comfort food bridges the long winter months during which Wisconsinites endure freezing cold temperatures, icy wind, and consecutive days without a ray of sunshine. Eating cheese, transformed into a delectable grilled cheese sandwich, takes Wisconsinites from point A—the first frost—to point B—the first major thaw of spring.
In order to cross the bridge of a Wisconsin winter, grilled cheese sandwiches are not only delicious but also, in my opinion, essential to survival. If you haven’t, try a grilled cheese sandwich on a snowy evening! You’ll see what I mean.
The infinite variety of possible combinations of cheeses on a grilled cheese sandwich boggles my mind. How do I solve this dilemma? I begin by trying different combinations of cheeses sliced, wedged, and then melted ever so delicately between two perfectly buttered pieces of bread.
Working in the Cheese Department at Willy West is helping me figure out how to put all the pieces together. And suddenly, one day, a cheese made of cow milk, goat milk, and sheep milk arrives from Mineral Point. It is made by Hook’s Cheese Company and it is called Triple Play. With notes of baby Swiss, Gouda, and havarti, this cheese blends three different kinds of milk into a multidimensional taste. Slap that between two slices of bread, and you are ready for an enticing grilled cheese sandwich.
Balsamic Bellavitanos and Harvarti
Another approach to the grilled cheese sandwich is to combine different kinds of cheese. Let’s say two to set a limit. Patrick Schroeder, the Prepared Foods Category Manager, suggests the following combination: “I would plan the combos depending on the fat, moisture, and salt in each cheese. If I were interested in having a grilled cheese using Balsamic Bellavitano, which already has great salt, I might turn to a more neutral complement that has higher fat—maybe a plain havarti. It helps emulsify the Bellavitano’s flavor into a higher moisture cheese that will melt more cleanly into the sandwich.”
Muenster and Cheddar
Steve Doll, who works in the West Juice Bar, follows a similar approach. He recommends blending together Muenster and cheddar. There are several cheeses available in the Deli. Of all the cheeses available in the form of a grilled cheese sandwich in the Deli, I had not thought of combining these two cheeses. However, my next stop at the Deli might include the happy marriage of Muenster and cheddar into a grilled cheese sandwich. And, if you are vegan, the Co-op also has a selection of dairy-free vegan cheeses that work well on a grilled cheese sandwich.
The final thought on grilled cheese I would like to leave you with is the monolithic grilled cheese sandwich. What I mean by that is the standard practice we are all familiar with. That of melting a single, favorite cheese on a grilled cheese whether that be cheddar, pepperjack, or even colby. And you must remember: always slice the grilled cheese in half the diagonal way!
Macaroni & Cheese
A second comfort food dish that takes Wisconsinites through the winter months is also standard fare for much of the rest of the year. Whether Thomas Jefferson brought this dish to America from Italy or it was originally a “macaroni pudding” from New England, macaroni & cheese presents a relationship to cheese similar to that of the grilled cheese sandwich. Finding the perfect combination of two cheeses for the dish inspires me to make it again and again. A family recipe may on the other hand determine what to put in and, more importantly, what not to put in.
Bad Axe and Evalon
In any case, I would like to suggest the use of two Wisconsin-made cheeses for your next homemade macaroni & cheese. Mirroring mozzarella cheese, Hidden Springs’ Bad Axe, a sheep milk cheese, is a young, semi-hard, creamy cheese.Named after the Bad Axe River, which meanders through the Wisconsin town of Westby, it comes into the Cheese department packaged in black wax. It is about the size of a bundt cake, or a small bowling ball (like the one they use in Canada).
Combining it with the Wisconsin cheese Evalon from Laclare Farms provides a tangy counterbalance to the creaminess of Bad Axe. Often used as a Parmesan or Gouda substitute, Evalon, an award-winning cheese from Chilton County, is made in ten pound wheels. The Cheese department receives these wheels and slices them carefully on a cheese slicing board into sellable wedges. They can then be grated into your pasta and mixed with Bad Axe to create a balanced flavor profile. More importantly, these ingredients will serve as the springboard to the creation of your next food memory.
The Misfit Bin
I was talking with a customer the other day at Willy West in the Cheese department. As she was walking away, she turned and engaged with me about her German heritage and the cheese she was going to try. Trying those small pieces of cheese from the misfit bin, she explained to me that the German word she would use for the orphan cheeses was “schnippel,” meaning scrap. That got me to thinking about all the different expressions we use for those tiny bits of cheese without a home in the cheese case. Calling them “orphans” and “misfits” is not the only way to think of them. Many customers use the misfit bin as an opportunity to taste a new cheese. Employees sort through the misfit cheeses in search of a creamy supplement to their lunch at work. And, if customers or employees like it, they oftentimes buy a normal size wedge of the same cheese from inside the case. To think of the orphan cheeses as “scraps,” or scrap leftovers, rings true in my experience working at Willy Street Co-op in the Cheese Department. I cut a wheel of cheese in half, in quarters, and then finally into appropriate-sized wedges for sale.
However, along the way, there are moments when that is not possible. A cheese might break or crumble in an unforeseen manner. And to those breaks and crumbles, the cheese is destined for the misfit bin. The “scraps.” The “leftovers.” So I commend the few and the brave on trying new cheeses in this way. For that is how you discover a cheese unknown to your palate. And a cheese unknown to your palate is a cheese to be potentially savored, appreciated, or maybe disliked. For as we like to say in the Cheese department: no single cheese is loved by all.