Back in the Stone Ages — before hot wings were invented to satiate armchair quarterbacks, and when pro-football games were on Friday, Saturday or Monday and did not interfere with Sunday church services — football fanatics chowed down pounds of cheese, summer sausage and tater chips during the game.
There were no salsa and tortilla chips in those days, either, nor was there delivery pizza. We got by, though.
It was easy to buy Christmas gifts for the man of the house. By Thanksgiving weekend, college bowl games were under way and the pro-football playoffs were in progress. Our wives knew that a gift basket from Hickory Farms was sure to please. I especially liked the variety packs that included several kinds of cheddar, creamy Swiss, Monterey Jack and specialty blends like Parmesan herb and three cheese and onion.
A thick slice of cheese on an equally thick chunk of beef sausage was pure delight. Most baskets included crackers, but it wasn’t a good idea to add one to a cheese-and-sausage sandwich. The cracker tended to explode with the first bite, leaving you a mess to clean up before your wife saw it.
I grew up liking cheese because it almost always was available at my house. It was cheap, except the special gift packages mentioned above. Mama always kept a 2-pound block of sharp cheddar in the fridge. After school, my older brother, two younger sisters and I would slice off large chunks of that cheese, which we munched on along with tater chips and sweet tea. It held us over till supper.
As long as she had at least 8 ounces of cheese left for macaroni and cheese or scalloped potatoes, Mama didn’t mind our afternoon snack. Cheese provided the calcium she knew we needed.
Sometimes, though, she bought large packs of processed-cheese slices for Sunday evenings when she made grilled-cheese sandwiches. It was OK on that, mostly because she buttered the toast on both sides before adding the slice of otherwise-tasteless processed cheese.
Cheese is one of those necessary ingredients most folks don’t think about until a dish is made without it. I really don’t care for cooked broccoli unless it’s covered in a rich cheese sauce. An omelet without cheese might as well be without eggs, too. Cheese adds character to everything, whether it’s a hamburger, hot dog, ham sandwich, tuna salad or bowl of spicy chili.
Cheeses are popular, I think, because they come in so many varieties. Though my favorite still is a sharp cheddar, I love colby, Monterey Jack, brie, mozzarella, Gouda, Parmesan, provolone or Asiago.
The shredded cheese I put on my spaghetti is a Kraft-brand mix of Parmesan, Romano and Asiago. The cheese I add to my chili is a four-cheese Mexican mix, consisting of Monterey Jack, cheddar, queso quesadilla and asadero.
If it’s tempered with a little ranch dressing, I’ll cool down my hot wings with bleu cheese dressing. I also love pimento cheese, which is a mixture of sharp cheddar, mayo and pimentos. I’ll even eat cottage and ricotta cheeses, but only if they’re cooked in something. My wife includes ricotta with mozzarella when she makes lasagna.
Several months ago, I attended a public event that included a delicious Vidalia-onion cheese dip. The caterer only smiled when I asked her for the recipe. From what my taste buds could discern, it consisted of caramelized Vidalia onions cooked with tiny bits of bacon and a mix of cheddar and probably Swiss cheeses. There also may have been some butter, a little mayo and some spices in there.
Photographers always tell their subjects to say “cheese” because you can’t say it without smiling. I can’t even think about cheese without smiling.
Murray’s food column appears Wednesdays in the Courier. Email him at email@example.com.