A tale of two cheeses

There’s probably few things that are as personal, as idiosyncratic, or as undeniable as what foods we like and what we don’t like. The word “disgusting” derives from the Middle French word for taste (gouster, now goûter), and even when we’re talking about something other than food, it evokes a deep, visceral sort of revulsion — something so bad that it makes one sick to one’s stomach. There are foods that we’re indifferent to, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those ordinary, everyday foods that we each, for whatever reason, find to be disgusting.

When I was younger, I didn’t think of myself as a picky eater, although I’m not sure my parents would have agreed. To this day, I’d still say there wasn’t much that I didn’t like, it was just that the things I didn’t like happened to be everywhere. Bananas (which I still hate, both in flavor and texture), tomatoes (which are a column of their own), and most inconveniently, cheese.

It’s tough to be a kid who doesn’t like cheese. I always tried to be flexible, but cheeseburgers are everywhere, and it’s not always easy for either parent or kid to extract a melted slice from both burger and bun. We’re all familiar with Vincent Vega’s wonder over the French version of the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese, but Vincent never walked into a McDonald’s and tried to order a Quarter Pounder with Cheese with no cheese. Try it sometime. Just for fun. As long as you don’t care that the burger will come to you with cheese no matter what you think you’ve finally made the person behind the counter understand, it’ll be the most entertaining ten minutes of your day. You can’t just order a Quarter Pounder, you have to try to communicate somehow that you don’t want cheese on the thing. (Sure, you say, I could just get a Big Mac, but if my preferences were actually being consulted, I would have been in Burger King getting a Whopper. The McDLT eventually solved this problem, for a while, anyway.)

Anyone who has ever tried to feed a child shouldn’t be surprised that my dislike of cheese wasn’t universal — pizza was never a problem — and when I was old enough to start to care, I tried to be consistent. I thought that if pizza wasn’t a problem, then it couldn’t be that I disliked all cheese. I tried Swiss and provolone, and sure enough, while neither had much to recommend itself, neither turned my stomach either. I learned to appreciate a mushroom Swiss burger, and to my surprise, found myself a fan of the spicy pepper jack cheeseburger that Wendy’s served for a short time. (Don’t ask me how I ended up trying that. I can’t even imagine. But it was pretty good.) By the time I graduated high school, my working theory was that I liked white cheeses — which tend to be milder — and that it was the stronger yellow cheeses that I didn’t like. A whole new world of food was opening up, but there was still a lot that I avoided.

And then, in college, one of my housemates looked at my eating habits and took pity on me. She and her roommate took turns cooking for each other, and once a week they let me join them. I’ve never been one to turn down free cooking, and being that I did so little to earn this meal, I ate whatever they put in front of me. In a matter of weeks, my sensible white cheese/yellow cheese dichotomy was turned upside down. Not only did I like cheddar and other yellow cheeses. I actually preferred a sharp cheddar to mild. When push comes to shove, I’m not always in love with the texture of raw cheese, but the flavor of a sharp cheddar was such that I didn’t care. Sliced, shredded, or melted, it was all wonderful. How could this possibly be?

After some reflection, I’ve pulled two lessons from this apparently illogical personal narrative. The first, is that tastes change. I remind myself of this when my own daughters decide suddenly that one of their favorite foods is no longer acceptable, and when my adventurous toddler turns into an arbitrarily picky elementary schooler. If I don’t always like the same things from day to day, then I have to expect the same from my children. All I can do is encourage them to keep trying things, and to do the same myself.

The second lesson was a bit less philosophical. When I was growing up, “cheese” meant a big block of Velveeta. This was used for everything from hamburgers to grilled cheese sandwiches. I’m not sure that actual cheddar had ever been in the house, just “pasteurized prepared cheese product.” It was never actually cheese that I disliked. It was Velveeta. I still think it’s disgusting. My daughters would probably love it.

Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.

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