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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

For the Love of Cheese

September 12, 2017

I defend America’s reputation at every turn. I have encountered rude Europeans over the years who have made snide remarks against our country. Nothing gets my blood boiling more than that. I am a very non-confrontational person, but if you criticize my family, my hometown, my home state, or my country, I usually take passionate, vocal exception.

Most of the criticism is unfounded or based on false information or misrepresentations. Though one area where we earn the criticism is with our cheese.

There is a scene in the outtakes of the movie Borat where Sacha Baron Cohen, in his Borat character, is talking to a grocery store manager in the cheese section. He is moving slowly, item by item, asking, “What is this?”

Each time the store manager replies, “Cheese.” This continues, over and over, for probably three dozen times. Maybe more. That is the current state of the American grocery store cheese section— a lot of very mediocre and subpar cheese, pre-shredded in plastic bags, with a couple of quality products scattered throughout.

We Americans love cheese, we just don’t love the good cheese enough.

I don’t eat a lot of fast food these days, and when I do, I do my best to make it slightly healthy and leave off the cheese. I’ll issue a challenge to the reader that will be a prime exhibit in my case that we have gone cheese crazy in this country. Try ordering a burger in a fast food drive through and have them leave off the cheese. They can’t do it. It’s so ingrained in them that every burger must be a cheeseburger. It’s been my experience that almost 50% of the time, they are going to put cheese on your sandwich even if you stressed over and over, “NO CHEESE, PLEASE!”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a burger place or Taco Bell. Some have an innate need to use cheese. That’s why I take 90% my occasional fast food business to Popeye’s— awesome dark meat spicy chicken, 0% chance that they are going to put cheese on anything I order.

I am a HUGE fan of nachos, seriously, I really, really love nachos. Though I only like real cheese on nachos. Not that stadium chemistry experiment, gloppy, yellow stuff they call “nacho cheese,” and not even— pause for a Deep South Cardinal sin food comment— Velveeta. Nope. Given my choice, I like individual chip nachos with some type of protein (preferably beef or steak), jalapenos, a little pico de gallo, and melted sharp cheddar cheese or some type of Mexican cheese like Manchego or Oaxaca.

I am not a cheese snob. I’ll occasionally have a burger, or a grilled cheese sandwich, with American cheese. But that is usually for nostalgic reasons. They remind me of my childhood.

I like my cheese to come from a cow, goat, sheep or an Italian Water Buffalo, not a chemistry lab. Remember: Real cheese doesn’t squeeze.

My editor in New York has a simple rule to maintain a healthy and fit lifestyle. He says, “I only eat meat, bread, or cheese that is of the best quality.” That might sound like Upper East Side snobbery, but it’s not. I get it. It’s sound reasoning. What he’s basically saying is that if he is going to indulge and spend calories on meat, bread, or cheese, he’s not going to waste those calories on cheap processed foods. I get that, and I can appreciate that. He eats freshly baked breads from bakeries and not sliced grocery store loafs, cheap burger places would be out due to lesser quality beef, bread, and cheese, and 90% of the mass-produced cheeses in large grocery store chains would be out the window. Granted, it is way easier to have good access to quality products such as those in Manhattan, but with a little effort, I make that work for me here in South Mississippi.

Admittedly, I am not an adventurous cheese eater. I like a few select cheeses and just like them to be of high quality. Everyone in my family loves blue cheese (except me), and I don’t care much for stinky cheese. If I had to list my favorite cheeses, they would be:

Tie 5. Brie: There is something that seems so refined when it comes to brie. It’s really the first upscale cheese I was exposed to as a kid, and probably the first cheese that I ate along with fresh sliced fruit and bread or wafers.

Tie 5. Sharp or smoked cheddar: This is the dairy product of my childhood. My mother could do wonders with a block of sharp cheddar cheese.


4. Mississippi State University Edam Cheese: This is also a product of my childhood, as several friends of the family would give us a red ball of MSU cheese for Christmas every year. Earlier this year I toured the dairy at MSU (for an episode of the upcoming television series Palate to Palette with Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters) where they milk the cows for their cheese, milk, and ice cream on campus, and was happy to see the place where years of culinary joy have originated.

3. Buffalo Mozzarella: The Italians call it “Bufala.” It comes from the milk of the Mediterranean water buffalo (nothing like our American bison), and it’s only good for pizza and salads in my book, but it is so perfect on pizzas that it easily makes this list— no problem.

2. Cassanova 18-month Aged Pecorino Romano: There is a tiny sheep farm outside of the small Tuscan town of Barberino Val d’Elsa that makes some of the best cheese on the planet. They own over 300 sheep and make a pecorino that is world class. They also make a great pecorino with truffle in it. It can only be purchased at the small farm or at small shops within a five-mile radius of the farm. Marco and his family do a great job, and I may, or may not, smuggle as much as can back into the country whenever I return home.

Note: Customs Agents, disregard the previous sentence.

1.) Parmigiano Reggiano from Peck in Milan: Of all the great food stores in the world, Peck is my favorite. The Parmigiana Reggiano there is unmatched. A few years ago, our Milan friends, Barbara and Alberto travelled down to Tuscany to stay with us over the weekend. They brought a quarter of a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (approximately 21 pounds) with them (those are my favorite kind of friends!). In the United States an 82-pound wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano goes for about $1,200.00 retail. Over there it’s a fraction of that. On that trip, we didn’t even put a dent in that wheel. We took it to Marco, who was gracious enough to cut it, portion it, and vacuum seal it, after which we may— or may not— have brought it home with us.

View today’s recipe: Cheese Straws

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