The Cheese Does Not Stand Alone

30 Dec

I’ve been doing some serious thinking about cheese:

A few years ago, my local Safeway got upcycled. It had previously been a very ordinary Safeway, but then some fancy competition moved into the neighborhood: Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Lunardi’s.

My Safeway fought back. It expanded, remodeled, and brought in fancy cheeses, smelly sausages, and artisanal bottles of olive oil. The plan worked: our humble local Safeway survived and even helped to kill off Andronico’s–though not Lunardi’s or Whole Foods.

I think it was the cheese that did in Andronico’s, myself. Cheese is clearly a high mark-up grocery product, plus you don’t have to worry about spoilage; it’s already spoiled. So, no wonder that my Safeway sells a lot of it. I don’t understand their methods of displaying their cheesy products, but apparently it works.

First off, you can buy cheese in the Safeway Deli. There’s a cheese and meat counter where you can have various large blocks of popular cheeses custom-sliced and wrapped up in neat white rolls of paper.

So far, so good.

Right next to the cheese and meat counter, there’s a small rack where you can buy the exact same cheese and meat that is displayed at the cheese and meat counter, for the exact same price, already sliced, sorted and packaged in plastic.

What’s the point of standing in line, waiting for a deli clerk to notice you, and then having it custom cut, then? You just waste time, and you don’t save a bit of money at all. I figure there are a lot of expat New Yorkers in my town who just want to wait in line and have deli things cut up and wrapped in paper for them, as a kind of exercise in ancient folkloric pride.

You certainly wouldn’t find native-born Californians waiting for deli fixings when the exact same thing is sold in a convenient plastic package only a few feet away. We love things that are wrapped in plastic.

But that’s not the end of the cheese experience at my Safeway, by any means.

There is also a large refrigerated case in the middle of the floor, between the Deli section and the Bakery, which is where they stack all of the super-fancy imported European cheeses: Lemon Stilton from England, Dubliner Cheddar, real Dutch Gouda, and, of course, a whole line of extremely aristocratic French cheeses replete with added exoticisms: mushrooms, truffles, wine, pate. (The French cheeses are set off from the piles of other cheeses in a very superior sort of way, as if they were being protected from contamination by the mere English and Dutch cheeses.)

Last time I checked, the Lemon Stilton was $22 a pound, and the French stuff was carefully stacked so you couldn’t see the price on the label until you picked it up to see what all the fancy mottled and swirled additions were about.

But wait, there’s more!

Way over on the other side of the store, sits the Ordinary Cheese Refrigerated Case. This features double-tiered rows of your humble Kraft Singles, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Lucerne Cheddar, Tillamook—basically the whole spectrum of the Cheese Proletariat. (The Ordinary Cheese lives right next door to the Ordinary Cold Cuts, of course—the ones that aren’t pedigreed enough to rate display in either the Deli section or the Butcher Meat section.)

So far we’re up to four different and distinct sections in the same store where you can buy cheese. But that’s not the end. One type of cheese—fresh Parmesan, grated or not—is apparently so in demand that you can buy it in all of the above-named cheesy sections, as well as in the take-and-bake pizza refrigerated case and the fresh pasta refrigerated case.

I count six places where you can buy fresh Parmesan cheese in a single store. Plus you can buy the tried-and-true dried stuff, encased in the familiar shiny, foil-wrapped cylinders, in the dry pasta aisle.

That makes seven places where you can buy Parmesan cheese.

Let’s face it, someone really doesn’t want you to escape from the place without cheese, especially the Parmesan variety. The managers and clerks probably have SWOT meetings—complete with Venn diagrams and Pareto charts—on days when no Parmesan is sold from their premises.

The ascent of my humble local supermarket into a cheese paradise has led me to ponder the place of cheese in Western culture, especially the Northern/Central European branch of it.

The way I see it, cheese was cheap and easily preserved protein. The vast masses of European peasants ate cheese and bread, bread and cheese, day in and day out, century in and century out. The nobility tried to limit the consumption of meat by their inferiors, but they clearly forgot about cheese. With cheese about, there was no way for kings, dukes and earls to keep protein out of the hands and stomachs of the common folk.

And so, thanks to cheese, the common folk eventually grew big, strong and smart enough to get rid of the nobility once and for all—except for in England, of course, where they are kept about for the same reason some people keep Hummel figurines in glass cases.

Cheese was very likely responsible for the collapse of serfdom, the French Revolution, the victory of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and the birth of modern, liberal democracy.

That’s quite a list for something you can buy in a shiny, foil-wrapped mailing tube for $3.49.

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