The cheese of my childhood was orange and shredded. It came out of heavy duty plastic bags with the word “Kirkland” emblazoned. We would toss it on our nachos, our quesadillas, our beans, and whatever else needed a tangy zip of milk fat. When mom wasn’t looking, we would grab it out of the bag by the handful and gleefully stuff it into our faces.
When I was around 13, I attended my cousin’s wedding reception, held in the gymnasium of the local Mormon church building that they attended weekly in Salmon, Idaho. The lighting was fluorescent and the tables were adorned with paper tablecloths. As I approached the refreshments table, I noticed a round white object on a plate. I asked another cousin what it was.
“Oh. What’s brie?”
“It’s cheese from France. It’s soft inside.”
We cut into it, revealing the soft, pale-yellow interior.
“See, that’s the part you eat. Just cut off the rest.”
I did so. It was delicious—buttery and mild. I put some raspberry jam on it and ate it with Wheat Thins and then went back for more. About 10 years later I learned that you can, actually, eat the outside of brie and anything brie-like, and that furthermore, that outside stuff is called a rind.
In college, my favorite restaurant was called Pizzeria 712, about 20-minute drive away from where I lived in Provo, Utah. I didn’t have a car, so I had to convince my friends to take me. It often took quite a bit of convincing—the pizzas there started at $15 and were much smaller than the $5 Little Caesars pizzas that most of my peers preferred. I usually went with my friend Chelsea, who I knew I’d get along with when she told me that she wept with joy after trying pasta for the first time in Rome.
At Pizzeria 712 one evening with Chelsea, the special pizza had a fresh, local goat cheese. I had tried fresh goat cheese before and liked it.
“But,” the server whispered conspiratorially, “the goats got out of their pen and wandered into a wild onion patch. The cheese tastes kind of like sour cream and onions today.”
My interest was piqued, but I was skeptical. It sounded a bit like they had a lot of goat cheese and needed a story to sell it. Still, we ordered it.
When the pizza came, we immediately tasted the cheese. We looked at each other.
It tasted exactly like sour cream and onions.
As a vegetarian at the time, I had thought about what animals were fed, but more in the sense of whether or not it was beneficial for them. It had never occurred to me that a mischievous goat wandering away would result in my cheese tasting different.
I looked over at the Alice Waters quote on the wall, “When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is.”
A few years later, I graduated from college with an English major and moved to New York City with $75 in my bank account. I shared a room (well, a bunk bed, actually) with a girl named Audrey who became a close friend. I got a job as a records assistant at a law firm and spent most of my day reading articles on the internet in the same office as Audrey, who was my boss and cared even less about the law firm than I did.
I wanted to learn more about food. One day, I saw a job post for a fromager position. I didn’t know what a fromager was, so I did a few quick internet searches and found that it was someone who knew a lot about cheese and curated cheese selections for people and businesses. I read an interview with a fromager who said he’d learned about cheese by volunteering at cheese tasting classes at a shop nearby. If you helped set up and clean up, you could take them for free. I emailed the cheese shop that day and signed up to help with a class the following week.
After putting out forks and knives and cheese slates and wine glasses and napkins, the cheese class started. We were to taste through seven cheeses. I picked up the first, a goopy thing called “Brie Fermier.”
The instructor told us to smell it. I sniffed.
It smelled like, uh, farts. Garlicky farts? Oh no—did I not like fancy cheese?
She asked us what we smelled. No one said a word.
“To me, it smells a bit like broccoli cheddar soup. Does anyone else smell that?”
YES! I loved broccoli cheddar soup (which apparently also smelled like garlicky farts—I’d just never thought about it). The class went on.
In that moment, the power of imagination had transformed a moment of apprehension to a moment of discovery. The mere words “broccoli cheddar soup” had taken my repulsion to the putrid cabbage-y aroma compound methanethiol combined with the cartoonishly-buttery aroma compound diacetyl and turned it into excitement at having discovered a cheese that tasted like my favorite comfort food.
I continued volunteering for the classes and, without realizing it, fell in love with the pedagogy of cheese. I learned to appreciate the dirty-feet-with-a-yeast-infection pungency of Epoisses (“it tastes like McDonald’s French Fries!”) and the steamed-milk-subtlety of Comte. I learned that the spicy intensity of blue cheese can be tamed with a gingersnap, revealing creamy umami heaven, and that cheddar can turn into something spectacular if you stick on some surgical-grade-muslin with lard and let it age in a cool, dark room which cheese people call a “cave.”
Six years later, I now write and teach about cheese. I get to use the broccoli cheddar soup line on worried class-goers tasting their first brie fermier and wondering if all fancy cheese smells like farts. I get to teach people that the soft outside is called the “rind” and that it ripens the cheese from something unspectacular into an oozy dream. I get to use my imagination to try to turn other people’s imagination on to the wide and wild world of potential flavors that can be unlocked from milk through fermentation.
Cheese is exploration, cheese is a celebration. Cheese is quiet, cheese is loud. Cheese is big bags of dyed stuff to melt over nachos, but it’s also hand-made treasures with quirks and personality. And, much like with humans, if you keep an open mind, you’re bound to discover some gems.
Cheese, for me, is a study in life itself. I’m lucky to have made its acquaintance.
Christine Clark is a professional cheese and beverage nerd. Her work has appeared in VinePair, Fine Cooking, Travel + Leisure, and AFAR, and she has been featured in Bon Appetit, Complex, Epicurious, and the Huffington Post. She is a Certified Cheese Professional by the American Cheese Society. In her spare time, she plays with her dog and plans her next meal. Follow her latest eating adventures on Instagram @yourcheesefriend.