I went to dinner at a new French restaurant with my wife, Elysha, and some friends. They ordered a cheese plate: four different cheeses for $18. Elysha once worked in a cheese shop and is an expert on cheese. There was a time when she would come home on a Friday afternoon with four pounds of cheese and $1.25 in her pocket instead of a paycheck.
The woman knows her cheese.
When the plate arrived at the table, I watched them dig in. I took a couple bites, but this wasn’t my kind of cheese. As a child, I had been spoiled by a very specific brand of cheese:
I grew up in a home with four siblings and not enough food. There was always a meal on the table, but the portions were small and seconds were impossible to come by. I was a free breakfast/free lunch kid in an age when I was required to raise my hand each morning and identify myself as such to my classmates. For most of my childhood, my family received food stamps, and along with those food stamps came a monthly portion of government cheese.
Government cheese arrived at our home in enormous, uncut, yellow blocks, wrapped in white, nondescript cardboard. It was an amalgamation of cheeses taken from the government stockpiles and distributed to needy families.
The arrival of government cheese was a celebratory event in our home. It signaled additional food for the following week. It meant that our bologna and catsup on Wonder bread sandwiches might be garnished with a wedge of cheese for a few days. It meant that dishes like American chop suey and chili would be making appearances on the dinner table.
I learned to love government cheese because it signaled the possibility of a full belly, at least for a few days.
Government cheese was also the only cheese that I knew for much of my childhood. It was the archetype of cheese for me. The Platonic ideal. When I was little, I thought that all cheese began as government cheese. As a result, I came to believe that the individually-wrapped Kraft singles that I saw advertised on television was the finest of all cheeses because it was the polar opposite of government cheese. Instead of an uncut block, Kraft singles were sliced and stored in their own cellophane shells.
I couldn’t begin to imagine how much that kind of packaging must have cost.
Government cheese spoiled me. It taught me to value cheese based upon size and the quantity of packaging.
That French cheese plate that my wife and friends ordered had none of these qualities.
$18 for six ounces of cheese is still unfathomable to me today.
Unfortunately, you can’t get government cheese anymore. Distribution of the blocks ended in the early
When you spend your childhood hungry, a part of you never forgets it. You always feel like you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, ready to fall over at any moment. You constantly strive to get ahead and preserve your position in order to ensure your next meal. You spend your life waiting for disaster, constructing contingency plans and planning for the day when there will be no food again.
The hunger of childhood goes away, but the fear of being hungry lingers forever.
Today my wife and I have a family of our own: a five year-old daughter named Clara and a 20 month-old son named Charlie. And there is cheese in our refrigerator. I just checked. A pound of Boars Head white American. Freshly grated parmesan. A block of cheddar. A bag of Babybel. Two small pieces of a white cheese, wrapped in plastic, that I cannot identify.
No government cheese and no Kraft single — but cheese.
When I open the refrigerator and see that cheese, I can’t help but think we’re okay. At least for now. There will be food on the table tomorrow, and my kids will not be hungry.