“Hold the Cheese,” by Mike Frenkel

Jan 17th, 2018 | By | Category: Prose

On this day, I had reached the limit of my tolerance. It had gone too far and I now felt compelled to express my disdain for the ubiquity of cheese that has spread like a noxious malignancy throughout our culinary culture. Yes. You heard me. CHEESE! Fromage. Parmesan. Pec-er-ino roman-o. Cheddar. Prov-a-lone. Monterey Jack. I spit out these words like profanities.

The breaking point occurred at my favorite restaurant on a beautiful New England summer afternoon. It’s the kind of place my Irish in-laws refer to as “the local,” a home away from home. On this day, the owner, with a wink and nod, led my wife and I past the waiting list line and to a quiet booth. What I liked most about their menu was its robust selection of fresh, tasty and safe seafood selections. By “safe,” I mean without cheese. I had assumed, until this particular day, that an unwritten culinary law prohibited cheese from touching a seafood plate.

The middle-aged waitress with the cheery voice, who pronounces “sure” with two-syllables (“shu-a”), brought our menus, our usual Bass for the missus and Guinness for me and her customary big smile to our table. The lunch specials began with a BBQ roast beef wrapped with cheese, a promising steak grinder but for the crumbled blue cheese, a ham and cheese melt and cheese tortellini. I was about to settle for fish and chips when I noticed a crab cake salad. Bingo. I was halfway through my Guinness when the cheery waitress set down our plates. My wife’s eyes widened as she watched me stare at the orange cheese shredded atop my crab cake salad.

I accept the limitations offered at Italian, Mexican, French or Greek restaurants. Their menus are for me like redacted FBI files, thick with promise yet ultimately unsatisfying. Recently, however, the preponderance cheese has transgressed what I had once considered safe houses. When, for instance, did it become nearly impossible to find a breakfast sandwich without cheese? Do eggs, bacon and buttery croissants not offer sufficient quantities of fat and cholesterol to satiate the average suicidal American’s morning craving? Isn’t a slab of cheese overkill? Why is it now standard practice for cheese to be welded into paninis, sprinkled on pastas or hidden in salads unless you ask in advance to hold the cheese? Why can’t I simply order a hamburger without having to respond to, “Want cheese with that?” If I wanted cheese on my bloody hamburger, I would have ordered a bloody cheeseburger!

Dining out is now like an endless Monty Python “Spam” routine. Just replace Spam with cheese in the, “But I don’t like SPAM” lamentation to hear the tone of my indignation. “Well, if you don’t want cheese on your san-a-wich, we could prepare for you cheese, cheese, ham and cheese or bacon, egg and cheese on a cheddar biscuit.”

It is the pervasive smell of cheese that most offends me. Aromas should stimulate, not offend one’s appetite. Restaurants protect the public from unwelcomed cigarette smoke. Why can’t similar accommodations be made for an anti-cheese clientele? “I’d like a table in the non-cheese section, please!” Before you snicker, did you know that the enlightened, cheese loving French have banned stinky Limburger and Epoisses de Bourgogne from public transport?

Parmesan is my main nemesis. Imagine how you might react to a blob of vomit on your entrée. For me, that is precisely what grated parmesan smells like. Literally. And before you roll your eyes, did you know that two short-chain fatty acids, butyric and isovaleric, produce the pungent smell in both parmesan cheese and… vomit? Grating only intensifies the odor, like bringing vomit to a boil.

Parmesan loving friends will concede that it smells like vomit, but rather than cowering in shame, they pivot to uncover the basis of MY problem. Is it an allergy? Lactose intolerance? A kosher thing? Exasperated, they finally ask, “What did your parents do to you?

My mother traces the origin to our journey as refugees from Europe to America. I was a seasick infant, and the refrigeration had broken down on our crude Navy ship. Without fresh milk, my mother force fed me canned, condensed milk and recalls me spitting up much of what I had swallowed. Months later, I strongly rebelled against my first introduction to cheese. Perhaps I conflated these smells. Perhaps, instead of Proust’s pleasant tea and cake memory, cheese elicited the nausea I had felt on the ship. Ultimately, what’s the difference why I hate cheese? I just do. And it has been a lifelong struggle.

My favorite childhood lunch was a bologna grinder slathered with brown mustard at the local Italian deli. The place reeked from giant tubes of provolone that hung from the ceiling like punching bags. I would hold my breath as I waited for my sandwich and then bolt for the door like a swimmer gasping for air.

One evening, my mom served spaghetti dinner with a new brand of canned sauce. I recognized the offensive ingredient on my plate immediately. As a ten-year old, I believed my mom incapable of lying, but when she promised me there was no cheese in the sauce, I did the unthinkable. I retrieved the empty can from the trash, scanned the list of ingredients and yelled out like Perry Mason, “A-ha. Romano cheese!” The mother-son bond of unconditional trust was forever broken.

At a friend’s Lebanese wedding, I popped a benign looking hors d’oeuvre in my mouth and with the first bite realized that feta cheese had passed my lips. My face reddened and my eyes watered as I tried to swallow the offensive object, but the more I chewed, the more pungent the taste became. I gulped a mouthful of water to help me swallow, but instead my cheeks ballooned with water and unctuous food particles. Finally, I dashed to the men’s room, cheeks expanding like a blowfish, and deposited the foul mixture into a sparkling, clean toilet.

I readily confess that my disgust for cheese does not include several fresh varieties like mozzarella, ricotta and cottage cheese. My logic is that these cheeses are not aged and therefore do not smell. I have eaten New York style pizza slices, with great pleasure, since early childhood. Perhaps, this was the first time my mother willfully deceived me about cheese, and I remain grateful to this day that she did.

This lifelong revulsion has not diminished with age. Recently, at a pot luck party, my friend assured me that his lovely looking lasagna included only mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. I gave the dish a good, Jimmy Durante once over, sectioned a small piece onto a paper plate, gave it a second, deep smell and then a tentative bite. It was delicious, and I was halfway through a second helping when I asked about the sauce. He proudly began sharing his recipe, but when he mentioned “sprinkle parmes,..” as the final ingredient, his wife (who knew me well) gave him a sharp elbow. But it was too late. My wife finished what remained on my plate as I resisted the urge to produce my own butyric and isovaleric acids.

And so, on this lovely New England summer afternoon when my cheery waitress placed before me my crab cake salad topped off with this orange monstrosity, I snapped. “Why is there cheese on my crab cake salad?” I bellowed. My wife placed her hand on my elbow as the waitress pointed her shaky index finger at the line on the menu which clearly described “…a house made crab cake on a spring green salad with shredded cheese.”

My wife intervened. “I’m so sorry, Estelle. My husband didn’t see that.” Estelle offered to wipe the cheese off the plate, and before I could explain that the bloody cheese had touched the damn crab cake, my wife lied on my behalf. “No Estelle. Sorry. He’s allergic to cheese.”

Estelle then asked if she could bring me something else. I composed myself and stiffly requested a hamburger, medium well, with sweet potato fries. And then Estelle, obviously on automatic pilot, triggered the events that would forever ban me from my local. She asked ever so sweetly, “Ya want cheese with that, hon?”


Mike Frenkel say, “‘Hold the Cheese’ is my attempt to answer the persistent question, “How can someone who was born in Paris hate cheese?” Since retiring from a long career in teaching, I’ve been writing a lot in various genres about cheese, baseball, the Holocaust (I am a child of survivors.), aging, and the absurdities of life in a Trumpian nightmare. I spend much of my non-writing time traveling, looking for a home for my first novel, “We See Things As We Are,” and trying to make people laugh.

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