Milk, as most of us know, is a pretty mediocre beverage. For starters, it comes from the internals of a cow or goat. Not exactly what most of us reach for when we’re thirsty. After it’s forced on us during infant-hood, we mostly don’t drink the stuff, except it’s a nice compliment to cereal. I’ll give it that much. When the mediocrity of milk spoils, it becomes a sour and chunky liquid, much like vomit. From the vomit, we make all kinds of questionable substances, like yogurt, sour cream, ranch dressing, and worst of all, cheese.
Cheese is the best evidence I know of for the fall of creation and subsequent human depravity. I even dislike the word itself. The substance oozes, glimmers, and reminds me it’s alive. The thought of tasting cheese is enough to make me gag, and its smell wafts in from miles away and seeps into the air and furniture. Even when it is unwelcome, which is always, cheese stays for days and reminds me of its presence.
Unfortunately, my cheese bigotry is impossible to hide. We’re talking first-date conversation. I sit down for dinner with some young lady I’m trying to woo, and what can I eat? A salad? Make sure to order it without cheese. A sandwich? Order it without cheese. Pasta? Without cheese. Pizza? Yes, of course I eat pizza, which is actually quite lovely without the cheese, thank you very much. Just think how many calories I avoid, but still, I get harassed.
“That’s blasphemy!” the woman inevitably lectures if I order pizza without cheese. “Basically, you’re just eating bread!”
“And tomato sauce, meat, and vegetables, damnit!”
I’m flustered. And this on top of the fact that I’m anticipating worst-case scenarios that repeat themselves: the menu neglects to communicate the essential fact that a dish contains this substance of death; the waitress, waiter, or cook screws up the order; or – and this is quite rare – I forget to say “without cheese” when I order. Oh, and I almost forgot my personal favorite: the hands that prepare my dish leave out one of the cheeses – the cheddar on top of the salad, say – but somehow the person fails to connect that I also don’t want feta grated into my Italian dressing. When this happens, chances are I’ve already made enough of a scene, so I don’t send the plate back, which means my date gets to watch me meticulously pick every speck of cheese off and out of my food. She and I are really clicking now; the chemistry is almost tangible.
I know exactly what’s coming next: we launch into the “What about…?” game. “What about cream cheese?” Vile. “What about lasagna?” Offensive. “What about cheese cake?” Disgusting. “What about cottage cheese?” Why would you even ask that? “What about string cheese?” The worst! “What about cheese and wine?” I hate it, hate it, hate it!
She takes pleasure in my pain and vows to change me. Is there any other food to which people feel compelled – with such religious fervor! – to convert other people? To make matters worse, I grew up in the Midwest, and my father is from Wisconsin, where people enjoy cheese so much that they wear fake blocks of it on top of their heads during football games. Whose idea was that and how in the world did that trend ever catch on?
Friends and family members are always trying to sneak cheese into my food without my noticing – who in their right mind puts cheese in a doughnut?!! – but luckily I have a sixth sense about it. When I kiss a woman and detect cheese from her dinner, it’s a total mood killer.
One time, a female friend of mine cooked a pasta dinner for the two of us. She knew all about my cheese abstinence. But when I took my first bite, my stomach clenched, my mind raced, and a trickle of sweat leaked down my forehead. “This has cheese in it,” I said.
“No it doesn’t,” my cook friend responded. “You’re paranoid.”
“Let me see the box,” I demanded. She complied, and my deepest fear was confirmed. No, it doesn’t matter where in the order of ingredients cheese shows up. Last is still too much. After the ingredient debacle, my friend and I went out to dinner, and I appeased her by picking up the check. But why do I apologize for this preference?
When girlfriends and family members finally give up on the possibility of my conversion, they theorize that I probably had a bad experience with cheese as a child. And they may actually be correct because my mother insists she remembers me eating it. So what exactly happened that destined me to this alienation? Did I find cheese in my shoe? Did my babysitter hold me down and breathe her cheese breath into my face? Whatever the trauma was, my memory blocks it out. Perhaps there’s cheese therapy out there that can help me access my damaging root experience.
These conversations would be easier and people would be more tolerant if I would just claim – as I often consider doing – that I’m lactose intolerant. Except then I would have to hide the fact that I’m addicted to ice cream.
*This essay originally appeared in Fall Lines‘ summer 2015 issue.