For most of my life, I thought cheesecake sounded rather disgusting. As a kid, Cheesecake Factory wasn’t around to make the over-the-top, highly-sugared, and indulgent introduction to what would later become the love of my life. No. Not even close. At that time, it wasn’t boys who had cooties. It was cheesecake.
A natural Wisconsinite, cheese was a savory addition to any meal and sometimes even the meal itself: Macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese soup, and on daring days, cheese soup with broccoli. A gravy boat brimming with melted cheese donned almost every mealtime setting and bribed us to eat cooked vegetables or broiled fish with a promise of a pour.
For everything we didn’t like, cheese was the solution. As I knew cheese back in those days, it was orange, slightly salty, and came in two varieties that I liked: American and Velveeta.
If we were having a fancy dinner, a green, shiny cardboard tube of Kraft powdered parmesan was on hand and was accompanied with a curt reminder that one cannister needed to grace all the plates at the table.
Cottage cheese was for people who dieted like my mom, or people who were old like my grandmother. Dieting cheese wore dots of pepper and was spooned out of a bowl with slices of fresh veggies. It was still cheese and could be tolerated if you, for some reason, had to eat it.
Cheese was never part of dessert.
My grandma Dorothy almost ruined cheese in its entirety for the grandkids one year. She lovingly took my brothers and I to a cheese factory to witness the miracle of curds. The glory of our proud dairy heritage was just behind the brown steel door and I thought it was going to be like visiting Great Uncle Guido at the Ambrosia Chocolate factory in downtown Milwaukee. The air at the chocolate factory smelled so sweet that you could walk with your mouth open and feel cavities forming on your teeth. It made you want to lick all sorts of surfaces to see if the whole place was made of chocolate. It was what I imagined heaven smelled like.
No one can prepare you for the smell of a cheese factory. You definitely want to keep you mouth closed walking into one…probably your eyes, too.
The fetor branded my memory like an iron right out of the fire and I swore off of cheese for a longer time than it took my tiny little nose hairs to grow back.
It’s fermenting milk—an entire building of it.
The idea of cheese and cake in one flavor was about as appealing as a fish cookie, possibly even in that same factory.
My grandmothers, Dorothy and Mary Anne, who didn’t necessarily get along, had a shared recipe for cheesecake that, for whatever reason, I didn’t know was cheesecake until an age where I should have been embarrassed not to know otherwise.
They called it refrigerator cake. It was a non-bake version of what I now know is cheesecake and it had enough sugar in it to give the air at the chocolate factory a run in the cavity competition. This cheesecake showed up at all special occasions such as birthdays, reunions, marriages and divorces. It was there for many a counseling session as I learned all the things love wasn’t and it was a favorite and sought-after dessert by anyone who had ever had a slice, including me.
I learned to make this cheesecake according to their recipe and finally figured out that cheesecake does not have cooties nor is it disgusting. The recipe has since been modified to meet the particulars of my adult palate, and dare I say it’s even a bit better than its former self.
The grandmas’ cheesecake, even my rendition of it, was nor is the kind of cheesecake that would inspire a young twenty-year old college kid to declare war on a gender, find truce in the kitchen, and spend the next thirty years threatening to write a book about it. The cheesecake was good but it wasn’t “who needs men anyway” good. It was nostalgia good. It was a simple life good. It was a hug from grandma good.
It was the only cheesecake I had known and almost made it to the alter with me, except by that time, I had found another cheesecake…