Everyone has stories about some food that they’ve tasted in the past that lingers in their mind as the best they’ve ever had; and incredible croissant that you had just after landing in Paris, a perfect plate of gorgonzola gnocchi from a hole in the wall that you stumbled upon in Florence, or maybe just the first time that you tasted deep fried cheese curds. I love how memories of food become more and more mythical as time goes on—that elusive flavor that you once tasted but won’t ever be able to find again, because you can’t quite remember where the restaurant or bakery was, or you couldn’t translate the name of the dish in to English.
For years, I have always remembered an incredible quesadilla that I had when I was about ten years old, in Oaxaca. This quesadilla sticks in my memory as hands down the most incredible thing I have ever tasted. This cheese has become somewhat of a holy grail for me—for years I wondered how I could figure out how to find it again. Thinking about it now, its rather incredible that 10 year old me, who subsisted mostly on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Chips Ahoy, was really so in to a quesadilla made with ‘stinky cheese’.
If I had to guess, I’d say that that legendary quesadilla was made with Oaxaca cheese and something else—Oaxaca is a great melting cheese that is used frequently in quesadillas, but it is too mild usually for what I tasted. Oaxaca cheese is a semi-soft, fresh, white cows milk cheese with a salty flavor similar to mozzarella—in fact, mozzarella and Oaxaca cheese are made in very similar ways.
I know that probably my memory has inflated the flavor of this cheese, and that if I were to find it today it wouldn’t live up to how I imagine it. Every time it pops in to my head, my mouth still waters just a little thinking of what it would be like to eat it again. Even if it’s a trick of memory, it still puts a smile on my face to imagine that I once got to taste a mythical quesadilla made with some sort of secret, peerless, perfect cheese!
My talent for small talk (or lack thereof) consists mostly of my ability to talk about cheese. At parties, one of the most common questions that I get asked is ‘What’s your favorite cheese?’. For me, this question is the equivalent of asking a parent which one of their children is their favorite—it is just not possible to choose (unless my mom has been lying to me all of these years?). Instead of answering, I usually ask people what their favorite cheese is, something that actually helps me gain a lot of insight in to what sort of person I’m talking to. Every once in a while I end up with some interesting answers that shape my future relationship with the person.
Once, at a party, my friends introduced me to a guy who worked at Murrays, a prestigious cheese store in New York City, citing our shared interest. He was pretty cute, so we started talking about what cheeses he liked, my main metric for deciding if someone is date-worthy. When he told me that he only liked ‘mild cheeses’, I immediately started looking for a way out of the conversation. A cheese aficionado who limited himself to mild cheeses was not my idea of a good date!*
I know someone who purports to only like French cheeses, because there is no way that Americans could ever master the art of cheese making like the French have—a silly idea that attests to his extreme Francophilia. He also scoffs at the idea that cheddar could ever be a worthwhile cheese; he’s someone who has ‘taste’ in cheese, but who doesn’t really taste it. I take this as a challenge, though, because all he needs is a taste of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Holland Family Farms Gouda, or LaClare Farms chevre, and he’ll be a convert!
Most of the time, though, people tell me that they like brie or camembert, or maybe even name a local cheese if they’re adventurous cheese eaters. And although a person’s favorite cheese can say a lot about them, most of the time people I meet haven’t discovered their favorite yet, which means I get to suggest a new cheese—my favorite conversation topic!
*(Don’t worry, I gave him another chance-he started tasting more flavorful cheeses and liked them, and we’ve been eating stinky cheese together for 6 months now!)