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My personal history with cheese comes wrapped in plastic. That's how it started for me in suburban New York in the 1970s. I was raised a religious Jewish kid in a kosher home, and the only cheese I knew into adulthood came in a bright yellow block wrapped in plastic. When you tore open that plastic, what you’d find inside was … more plastic. Each of those rubbery yellow slices was individually wrapped, and I can still remember the motion — peeling back the overlap on that see-through jacket to get at the milk-kissed chemicals inside.
Considering that it was our only cheese, we also used it for cooking. This is how my mother made spaghetti: She'd boil some spaghetti, grab a can opener and a can of the plainest tomato sauce you can find. What you want to do here, if you're trying at home, is pour the sauce over the cooked spaghetti, remove the plastic from some cheese slices, rip that cheese product into strips and stir everything together. That was one superpopular dinner in our house. My mother's recipe was a dueling favorite with the one served across the street by my best friend's mom. His mother would just boil pasta, pour ketchup on top and serve. This was based on the age-old culinary dictum that everything red must be more or less the same. Sticking with the ketchup, we also made our own pizza. Here's how: You cut an English muffin in half. You peel a slice of cheese, and you lay it on top. You add ketchup and toast it in the oven until the fire alarm goes off. That is how, I believed — until adulthood, I swear it — that you make pizza.
I was, thankfully, well fed growing up. I didn't go hungry. But as you might guess from those recipes, I started to get hungry in a lot of other ways — for different flavors and ideas, for a cheese that had taste and for a taste of the broader world. I ran off to Jerusalem, where I ate feta with my watermelon and grilled haloumi on my salads. It was from there that I initially traveled to London. And upon arriving at Victoria Station, I had my first nonkosher cheeseburger, made with my first-ever nonkosher slice of that familiar processed cheese. On a later trip, I ended up in Paris, where an ancient man promised me there were 365 different types of French cheese. He told me there was one for each day of the year. And with every one I tried in every country I visited, I became more cheese obsessed. Last time I was in Amsterdam, I half expected to be escorted out of the breakfast room of my hotel for wanton abuse of the cheese table.
You'd assume that calling someone a Cheesehead at a bar in Madison would get you knocked out with a bottle of locally brewed beer.
Of course, these are all the extremes of my cheese-eating history. My day-to-day cheese consumption falls somewhere in the middle — in the middle of those two poles and in the middle of these United States. I'm currently based in America's heartland, because my wife's getting a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. And I've split my time these last couple years between New York and our adopted Midwestern home. It's a full thousand miles across the country from our base in Brooklyn. When in Madison, we live in a little apartment between two giant blue lakes. And I mean we're actually right in between those lakes on a narrow isthmus, which I think is a really rare place to live in this world.
I'd spent some time living in the Midwest before, and when I landed in Madison, I quickly learned what differentiates Wisconsin from the other members of America's Corn Belt and American Breadbasket (two of the nicknames for the region). And as you've likely already guessed, what makes this place special is cheese.
Wisconsin is America's cheese state, and its residents are known as Cheeseheads. You'd assume that calling someone a Cheesehead at a bar in Madison would get you knocked out with a bottle of locally brewed beer, but everyone here holds cheese in high regard. People call themselves Cheeseheads with pride — most especially fans of the Green Bay Packers football team. Which is everyone. The cheese/sports link has become so intertwined that one of the big Wisconsin accoutrements — the first thing you'll spot in the stands at a football game — are these giant foam wedges of cheddar cheese. Along with the many small holes needed for verisimilitude, these wedges also contain one giant hole in the bottom where goes your noggin. They are cheddar cheese hats made of foam.
The first recorded sighting of a Cheesehead hat was at a 1987 Milwaukee Brewers baseball game, and it was sported by one Ralph Bruno, who, allegedly, made it out of the foam from his mother's old couch. These displays of sports-cheese pride are a regular occurrence. I recently spotted a big black Cadillac with an official Green Bay Packers license plate with the team's name and symbol emblazoned on it. And what was the identification number on that plate? There was no number at all, just letters: C-H-E-E-Z-N. This guy drives around with a cheddar-colored license plate singing the praises of his home team and of cheese.
Wisconsinites both celebrate and defend their cheese with good reason. The state has some of the finest locally produced cheeses I've ever had. If you go to one of the nice restaurants on the Capitol Square — places with names like Graze that nod to the farming communities that surround us — they will serve you up a local cheese plate of astounding flavor and range.
The last time I sat there, among the dozen choices chalked up on the board were a sheep-and-goat-milk mobay, an unpasteurized bandaged cheddar and my previous No. 1 favorite, Hook's Little Boy Blue, which won first place at the American Cheese Society Competition in 2011. Little Boy Blue's a blue cheese made with sheep's milk from flocks grazing on the grasses of southern Wisconsin, which is an ideal place to live if your job is grazing, as this is the flattest, flattest state I've ever seen. It's like one big, green golf course.
The cheese curd is my new life's individually wrapped slice.
On a Saturday last spring, one of the first nice days after a truly grueling Midwestern winter, the largest, most impressive farmers' market I've ever seen was set up. It covers the whole half mile around the Capitol Square and offers a very wholesome picture of Wisconsin. It's an unparalleled celebration of the coming summer. When I headed over there, there were children frolicking on the lawn outside the capitol building and happy-go-lucky college students strolling the farm stalls and families out shopping for produce after a long winter hibernation — a winter so cold that the lakes freeze over thick enough for you to drive your car across. There were also 17,000 people taking part in the annual Crazylegs Classic run. They were being cheered on by many good-hearted folk, including a full-on marching band, with trombones and tubas gleaming in the sun, and a group of Wisconsin Badger cheerleaders, all of them with bows in their hair and clapping their red and white pompoms together with apparent endless glee.
There I found the cheese stand I was after. It was set up next to a bakery manned mostly by young Amish boys, all in traditional dress — black hats and black suspenders, their pressed gray-blue dress shirts buttoned at the collar. The dress is symbolic of their choice to lead simple lives and their avoidance of modern ways and technologies, sort of like Mennonite Hasidim.
And if I'm noting different Madison-area cultures and traditions, I should also note — coming here from my wildly multiculti neighborhood in Brooklyn — the neighborhoods right around the capitol are very noticeably, very homogeneously superwhite. And pretty much everyone working at the farmers’ market is also white. Everyone but for the vendors who are members of the Hmong community. Which makes sense, since some 50,000 Hmong live in the state, which, I have learned, makes it one of the three biggest Hmong populations in the country. As for the cheese stand, they had an enormous selection — more makes and models than I never dreamed existed growing up. Of the cheeses on display and of interest to me were a Blue Paradise, a Bloomin' Idiot and one I'd never tried before, a block of white cheddar with black truffles.
But if we're really going to get to the heart of Wisconsin cheese, then it's the one I tasted next that best represents this place. There's one type that defines Wisconsin better than any of the fancy locavore offerings. The true Wisconsin specialty is the cheese curd. And as far as I know, outside of this region, they're completely unavailable anywhere else in America. You can't get them. Fresh curds, like the ones I had at the stand, squeak when you bite into them. They are a little rubbery-in-a-good-way cheese nubbins, no bigger than your thumb. They were originally a by-product of the cheese-making process and are now a local staple. They're fully ubiquitous around here.
To cook them, you grab some cheese curds, you batter them, and then you deep-fry them in oil. When you think they're done, you fry them some more. That's how they're most often served around town — deep-fried, with a side of ranch dressing for dipping. Every restaurant that serves them has its own special twist. One place has a vodka batter, and another fries them in beer. But my favorite fried cheese curds in town come from a bar called Mickey's. A pounding rain was just ending when I headed over to get some. By the time I had arrived a few minutes later, every seat in the garden was crammed with folks trying to enjoy the super-short-lived spring. These people will wring every last bit out of the good weather. Because as cold as the winters are, the summers can turn hot in equal measure. When I first moved to the Midwest, someone swore to me that at its hottest, the cows explode — this from the gases trapped inside their stomachs.
I know everything in the world tastes better fried, but to be honest, I like my curds fresh and squeaky. I know why that is, and I also know why, of all the sophisticated artisanal options and declared favorite, it's the simple curd that I'd reach for every time. It's because I was raised on a diet of beige and bland foods. The unadorned, uncomplicated choice may not taste best by any objective standard. But subjectively, nothing will ever bring me more comfort than a heaping serving of the plain, despite my running from it all those years ago.
The mornings I've spent in my Madison dog park arguing about types of cheddar are surely dwarfed both in number and decibel by the arguments I've had about where to get the supreme bagel in New York.
The cheese curd is my new life's individually wrapped slice. It may be old hat to the people in this town, but to me, it's a welcome symbol of the abundance of this nation's local cultures and local flavors, the simple things that define a place. So back when I introduced you to the notion of the Cheesehead and I mentioned that this state will defend its dairy, I didn't just mean this emotionally or spiritually. I mean these people will fight for any of it, right down to their butter, which they protect with actual government legislation. At first, I didn't believe it any more than I believed in the exploding cows, but I was told that when margarine use started to grow in America, it was literally against the law to sell it in the state of Wisconsin.
From the year 1895, it became illegal to sell margarine colored to look like butter. And in the tradition of our legendary Prohibition bootleggers, there is also a history of traitorous Cheesehead rebels who would cross state lines to smuggle back yellow margarine hidden in their trunks. This oleomargarine law was kept in place until the late 1960s. Yet there are still some dairy-defending laws left on the books. Let’s refer to the Wisconsin State Legislature Oleomargarine Regulation 97-18, Section 4, which decrees that no restaurant in Wisconsin may serve margarine instead of butter unless specifically asked for it by the customer. Or Section 5, that states any student, inmate or resident of a Wisconsin institution may not be served margarine except for health reasons and as ordered by a doctor.
Their obsession with cheese truly warms my heart as a New Yorker. I could easily make fun of it, but the mornings I've spent in my Madison dog park arguing about types of cheddar are surely dwarfed both in number and decibel by the arguments I’ve had about where to get the supreme bagel in New York.
When I last flew back to New York City, I headed out to suburbia to visit my mother. I went straight to the refrigerator and opened the door. There, in the same exact spot where she's always kept it, was a pack of those individually wrapped, kosher slices. I don't think I'd tried one in 25 years. I wanted to see — post–feta and fried curds and with three kinds of Wisconsin cheddar sitting in my own fridge — how that first cheese, the one cheese, would stack up with my adult self. I took a slice and unwrapped it and tore off a strip. I bit into it and what I tasted was … nothing. It was even more flavorless than I dared believe. And with that blank bite of cheese on my tongue, that burst of nothingness unwound the years. It was like my own reverse madeleine. The taste of nothing at all brought so many memories rushing back, and at the same time it left me missing the best of Wisconsin.