a memoir by Amy Colter
This is a story about bad neighbors and cheese.
My husband and I escaped NYC one February, years ago, looking for the road’s centerline between wiper swipes as snow blanketed the road. I’d packed a plowman’s lunch with sharp cheddar and a crisp Cortland apple, my tribute to our New England move. My in-laws followed behind us in their car, bearing our 2-year-old daughter, Emma, and a red Corning Ware casserole filled with beef stew.
Although my dear mother-in-law considered salt and pepper the only important seasonings, the stew was particularly satisfying after our long trip. Especially the big chunks of potato that my hub mashed with his fork to soak up the gravy. I try not to reimagine food already cooked, but I can’t help myself: if she’d lightly floured the meat, browned it, then pureed some of the cooked vegetables into the mix, it would have helped thicken the stew and added depth to its flavor. But she didn’t.
Don’t worry; I’ll get to the cheese.
And so, we moved. The next morning, we woke in the wreck of the house we’d bought for not much, but planned to fix up. The hand cut beams stood above us, loaded with character, our home bright from the refection off the snow. A rush of frigid air welcomed us from below our massive front door. I pried it open to snow that stood two feet above the jam, threw back my head and howled, because I wasn’t sure what else to do. Emma followed suit.
By then we were all hungry. But the kitchen shelves were bare; the old fridge empty except for the few provisions we’d driven up, including more of that sharp New England cheddar. I buttered the backs of two slices of bread and grated cheese to go between. Miraculously, I found my large cast iron pan in one of the trillion boxes. I fired up our ancient Vulcan stove. Then we christened our home with sandwiches cut point to point, because triangles are the only way to eat grilled cheese. And Emma licked the oozing cheddar from their edges.
All that was before we met our neighbors. The Comstocks were a new kind a vegetarian, a kind I’d never heard of who didn’t like vegetables. They lived on cheese and looked it. Now, I don’t mean to malign cheese, but it can’t be the center of every meal, can it? If the Michelin man were made of cheese, he would be Charlie Comstock.
In my snobbish reverie, I imagined Charlie was more the American cheese type. But I was wrong. Just because someone’s dogs bark all day, and they shout, “fuck you” at their twin toddlers, it doesn’t mean they don’t adore the elegant taste of well-fermented cheese. And Charlie did.
As a toddler myself, I recoiled at the Roquefort my dad handed me across our kitchen table. I can still see the Stoned Wheat Cracker in his hand smeared with it.
“It smells rotten.” I’d said.
“It’s the very rotten flavor in cheese that we reach for,” he’d instructed.
His answer left a strong impression. Something about reaching for flavors outside your box. My box was small at the time, as I hardly reached the corner of our kitchen table. But after that I began to wonder about the taste of other. Cheese has it. I’ve heard tell that early nomads made cheese by mistake, their camels carrying milk in bags sewn from stomach linings across the dunes. The sloshing, the stomach’s rennet, the heat, created a kind of cheese that tasted the right kind of rotten and preserved their milk too.
By the time I was a teen, my taste buds learned to love what my dad called rotten. These days, I lift all kinds of cheese to my lips: soft Morbier, classically layered with milk from the morning and evening milking, separated by a thin layer of ash; mold ripened Brillat Savarin with its triple-cream opulence; and sheep’s milk Ricotta Salata, which sings when shaved into a salad of snappy garden greens. And yes, the complex, almost meaty, flavor of aged washed rind Gruyere.
It was during that first New England summer that our cheese-eating neighbor, Charlie, grew a beard and decided he was a nudist. He began to mow his front lawn, which sat directly across from ours, nude in his sneakers. By then he’d evolved into a kind of naked Santa, his white beard as long as his belly was wide. And I don’t mean to malign fat either. Just him. He abused the glory of cheese and looked it. His puffy face, his glassy eyes, were an ad against its persistent use — cheese on every sandwich, in eggs, sliced into thick sticks, eaten in front of the TV we saw glowing blue in the night across our country road. Like all ingredients, cheese needs to be used with intention, whether it’s served solo, spotlighted in a starring role, performing a salty salute with a curvaceous pear, or snuggled in mutual embrace with partners, as when it melts into tangy greens inside your plump ravioli.
Hours spent in the country with a toddler are longer than you may think. But Emma and I ate, read, sang, watched Charlie and sometimes talked opposites. Sour-sweet, strong-weak, black and white. That summer we covered a toddler’s range of culinary opposites. For sweet, we licked ice cream from cones in town that were made with the local Jersey milk and vanilla, aged in oak kegs nearby. And we sucked on wedges of sour lemon juice before nibbling on a bitter parsley sprigs, picked from our garden. And Emma downed salty franks my hub fed her on the sly, because he wanted to turn her into a regular kid, while I tried to protect her from too much junk too young.
And I told her about Maddie Mather down the street, a goat farmer, who was quite the opposite of Charlie. Black hair to Charlie’s white, tiny to Charlie’s giant, Maddie spoke in a small, but confident voice that would never yell, “Fuck You!” to anyone, especially not to her goats. While Charlie’s two goats wandered in and out of their sloppy pen, Maddie chose her breed of fifty Nubians for their cheerful looks. They were good-natured and highly functional to boot. Three at a time stood on the milking merry-go-round she designed, while cheesecloth bags hung on high, dripping the whey out from what would soon become one of the best fresh goat cheeses in America. Milky with a gentle tang, I’ve never tasted better.
One summer, while I was whipping up “cream cheese” icing with that same cheese, Charlie started coming home with an unusual array of cheeses, from that flinty Gruyere I worship, to a Burrato, with its mozzarella covering a sexy center that ran when his wife, Bertha, cut it open. Wise to his ways, she knew something was up.
Soon Charlie was not mowing the lawn, because he’d moved in with Shirley, the cheese monger from the local food Co-op in town. It was quiet across the street with Charlie gone, but in a small town rumors fly. His wife Bertha had marched into the food Co-op, right up to the cheese counter, where the cheese monger, Shirley, had asked: “Can I help you?”
“You can stop fucking my husband,” Bertha shouted, before marching out.
Back in NYC, cheese had been plentiful in my catering business, and especially in the cheese tasting class that I taught. For each session, after buying the cheeses downtown, I’d unwrapped them, grouped on plates by their food family. When you taste — say, a variety of Swiss-style cheeses together — you can differentiate, compare and decide, a rare privilege. You should try it.
Shirley had a huge selection of cheese at the Co-op. But unlike Charlie, I rarely partook, as life was more frugal for us in New England. With few exceptions, I stuck with what was local and good — fresh goat cheese from Maddie, lively blue from the Jersey cows down the road, and sharp orange cheddar from a therapeutic farm in the neighboring town.
And unlike Charlie, I stuck with my husband too. But after decades of cold winters in our drafty home, he began lobbying for a move to Mexico. I tried to get myself in the mood by anticipating avocados. One day, I scooped some of some of Maddie’s cheese into avocado halves, warming them together in the oven. Then I poured tangy lime vinaigrette over them. They were surprising good.
By then Charlie’s wife Bertha had raised their two sons, I assume on cheese, while our daughter grew tall and left for college. In all, we settled twenty-five years in our home, long enough for me to consider smoking mozzarella with the dairyman down the road. But no. I was left only with the smoky smell from across the street when Charlie’s son burned down his family’s home. Everyone escaped unharmed. But by the time their burned-out shell sold, my husband had renovated our old house, we’d packed our bags and moved to Mexico, where avocados are abundant and they sprinkle cheese on just about everything.
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Cotler is a chef and writer. Recently, her short pieces appeared in Hinterlands, Prometheus Rising, Guesthouse and The Rambling Epicure. She was a leader in the farm-to-table movement and food forum host for the New York Times. Currently, she lives in Mexico. Visit her at amycotler.com.