Posted on March 18th, 2013
When I was young, my best friend and I were inseparable. From the age of 5 we spent almost every day together, and as we grew older I was invited to practically every family vacation or event. Seders, visiting the cousins in the woods in Virginia, grandma’s house in Indiana, Christmas parties, and then, when we were maybe 11 or 12, Canada! We had spent many hours together in the way back of her parents’ station wagon- you remember those rear-facing seats? watching the miles fly by, reading or gossiping or napping, on to the next stop. But Canada! We were going to leave the country! This was a big deal!
We would start out in Montreal and spend a few days there, and then spend almost a week in Quebec City. Montreal was a fun, big city adventure, but I looked forward to Quebec City with an unusual hunger. I had studied French since first grade, and I was excited to be somewhere where I could have a leg up on the rest of the group.
We arrived one afternoon in late July. It was hot. Like, really hot. We stuck to the seats in the station wagon, and my hair was doing that humid thing where my face was surrounded by tiny, sticky, uncontrollable baby curls. The city was like something out of a book- beautiful old stone streets, buildings with wrought-iron balconies, the river beckoning just over the side of the hill. Our first night there was magic. We wandered into town from our B&B, and each corner we rounded took us farther away from the life I knew and deeper into this fantastical place. We turned a corner and I swear I could have died- there were endless restaurants, tiny cafes, specialty markets, and the sidewalk was full of street performers and artists. Landscapes, etchings, portraits, living statues, and somewhere further down the street, someone singing opera. I wanted to stay forever. You guys go on without me, I’ll be fine here on my own. I’ll create pastels of the river and survive on baguettes. Just go!
Our second night there we went out to dinner. After much debate (read: whining and yelling) we went to a Swiss restaurant. I remember walking into a small, dimly lit restaurant and being led to a table next to the fireplace. “It smells like feet in here!” complained my friend. As the polite, quiet friend, I waited silently, reading the menu to myself, finding the words I knew and trying to figure out the ones I didn’t. My friend’s dad ordered and we waited, none of us sure what to expect. And then- Fondue! A bubbling cauldron of golden melty cheese with little onions, pickles, boiled potatoes, broccoli, some sort of sausage! I was grinning from ear to ear, eagerly poking my long fork into the mass of molten richness. And next? Raclette! Foot smell? Located. Our waiter sauntered over with a hunk of cheese the size of which I had never seen before. He loaded it into the Raclette machine and we waited, somewhat dubiously. The surface of the cheese began to bubble. He scraped the melted surface onto my plate and smiled. I lifted a bite of potato smothered with stinky, runny goodness to my mouth and tentatively took a bite. Birds sang, lights twinkled, bells rang out. My friend and her little brother were hung up on the foot smell. Their loss.
The next day my friend and I were allowed to venture out on our own and we found a little upstairs lunch joint to hang out in. I read the menu to her and ordered for us in French. My first Poutine experience. French fries covered in gravy and more melted cheese! At this point, I was seriously considering hiding out somewhere when it was time to leave and trying to be left behind. Now, I look back at the pictures and smile. I hear a certain piece of opera and my heart aches, remembering the warm sun and the magic of that petite rue. My mother has a charcoal portrait of that early teenage me, sitting on the sidewalk. I see a certain longing in my eyes, anticipating that in a few days I would be going home.
These days, I work with cheese. If I’m feeling particularly romantic, I’ll tell you that I’m a cheesemonger. On a bad day, I’ll say that I cut big pieces of cheese into little pieces of cheese and then wrap them in plastic.
Really, though, I love cheese. The fact that it smells, that it’s a simple concept that is full of endless variation. It is a brief recipe: milk, cultures, salt, and time. Over thousands of years and different countries human curiosity has created more kinds of cheese than you could ever hope to taste. In my day to day at work I love to open the box, tenderly unwrap a special living creature and breathe it in deep. Stick my nose right in there- almost touching the cheese. Eyes closed, I can imagine the distant places that cheese has traveled from to find its way to me. Sheep grazing in a meadow in Vermont, cows happily munching on a steep slope somewhere in the Alps, the outdoors, the barnyard-y musk of an animal. Cheese is wanderlust, romance, memory, daydreams. Unwrapping a wheel of Raclette is still special–how the rind sticks to the paper, the smell of feet and memories, the milky, beefy flavor. I read the label to myself in French and I smile. Oui, le Fromage. Je t’aime. Someday, I’ll go back. And this time, I might stay for good.