Wednesday, March 19, 2008


When I travel, I collect potato chips. And I eat them, too. I am fascinated by how regionally determined potato chip flavors are. Here in the States, barbecue and sour cream & onion reign supreme, while I myself go for salt and vinegar, a tongue-tingling English combo which has become more easily available here. I never really got the concept of sour cream and onion. In England, home to some of the world's most intriguing and bewildering flavors, you can savor a full meal in a single chip, or crisp: prawn cocktail; ham and pickle; lamb and mint; roast beef and mustard; roast chicken; and many more imaginative flavors that wouldn't fly here. In Thailand, flavors are spicier and more pungent: Thai basil, hot chili squid, spicy seafood, and nori. Thai basil would probably gain a following here, but I am not sure how anything squid flavored would do, despite the ubiquity of calamari. In my cupboard in Queens, I've got a bag of Lay's dill pickle (cornichons a l'aneth)-flavored chips from Canada. I wonder why you can't buy them here. Maybe I should get the Pickle Guy on the Lower East Side to stock them.

Of course the American flavor I am most interested in is Cheddar. There are so many Cheddar-flavored (or implied) snacks in the States. A full 1/4 of the non-candy items in my work's vending machine offer some sort of Cheddar experience: Goldfish Cheddar, Sun Chips--Harvest Cheddar, Combos Cheddar Cheese Pretzels, Smartfood with White Cheddar, Cheeze-Its, and Crunchy Cheetos. Even health food stores carry Cheddar-flavored snacks, but theirs tend not to be of the bright orange variety: Kettle Brand Chips' New York Cheddar with Herbs, Pirate's Booty with Aged White Cheddar, and Smart Puffs with Real Wisconsin Cheddar. Whether you're fooling yourself with supposedly more healthful snack or guiltily feeding quarters into a vending machine, chances are Cheddar will be the flavor of the day.

Having noted the incredible variety of Cheddar-flavored treats all over town, I wanted to try a sampling of them and I wanted to try them out on my friends. The chance came on Sunday night, before a small group of us went out for Egyptian food on Steinway in Queens. Cheddar-flavored snacks may not quite be the appropriate food to whet one's appetite for a North African meal, but they do make for a fun, tasty gathering, especially when you throw a few cocktails into the mix.

I warned my three friends about the tasting, but they were game. Upon entering my apartment and seeing the snacks on offer in pretty little bowls (see picture above), they gasped at the bright orange glow of Wise Ridgies--Cheddar and Sour Cream. It's been a while since any of us have been to parties with artificially colored nibbles. While I mixed the cocktails, my three friends sampled the chips: Wise Ridgies, Sun Chips--Harvest Cheddar, and Kettle Brand Chips' New York Cheddar with Herbs. The Ridgies were initially an arid shock to the taste buds, having the bald flavor of something engineered in a food lab. But after giving them three chances, my friend Rachel actually began to like them, just as you end up giving in and liking a pop song the tenth time you hear it on the radio. The song and the chip are miracles of American marketing. To get any sense of the "harvest" Cheddar, my friends got the wise idea to lick the chip before eating it. Without doing so, it tasted just like any flavored Sun Chip. Soon they were licking all three chips. The winner was the meaty-tasting Kettle Chips with "bold GROWN-UP" cheese. They probably had the most alluring flavor, but I couldn't help but wonder whether we were seduced by the packaging. They seemed to be marketed for women like us, who wanted a snack but didn't want anything bright orange and obviously bad for you. Aren't we in New York, aren't we bold, aren't we grown up?

A lot of slick marketing goes into these crispy, savory snacks. The use of white Cheddar seems to evoke something pure, something that might even make you smarter, or at least appear smart to your fellow consumers. Think of Smartfood and Smart Puffs. Some products bother to localize their Cheddar (in name only), from either Wisconsin or New York, perhaps falsely allying themselves with the local food movement. Some evoke nature with names like Harvest Cheddar and Country Cheddar (Kashi crackers at Whole Foods). My friend Deidre laughed and wondered at what time of year farmer and son go off for the wild Cheddar harvest. I must do a lot more work in unpacking these loaded names.

I hope by now, fair reader, you are a believer that Cheddar is the American cheese and a basic American flavor. If not, go find me baked brie crisps, cave-aged roquefort cruchies, mountain emmenthaler puffs, or goedemorgen gouda chips.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Cheddar Thief

The nerve! They ran off with my cheese!

Almost a week ago, I put out for my guests a sweet, anytime treat of chunky peanut butter mixed with honey. To my dismay, they turned their little noses up at it. The whipped-up concoction remained untouched for days. So, I put out slices of Cheddar cheese for them, as I probably should have done from the start, if I weren't so stingy with my cheese. I put out just a bit, about half the size of a postage stamp and possibly twice as thick. Since word hadn't gotten out yet that I was offering cheese instead of an oily lump of peanut butter, it lay about for an evening, but then two mornings later it was gone. That's fine since I had put it out for them, but what irritated me was that they didn't bother to stay around and thank me. They took off without any sign of gratitude. Foolishly, I forgave their rude slyness and attempted to win them back with a festive honey cheese ball. This, too, was popular, but again they didn't stick around. Off they scampered.

Well, I've had enough. I never invited these guests into my home, and I don't want them any more. They may have thought they were winning my heart with their earnest love of cheese, but this hostess' icy heart is only so big. Same goes for my tiny apartment in Queens. There's little room here for an indeterminate number of ungrateful guests.

To get rid of these foul-weather friends, I will have to cast aside my peaceful vegetarian side, as well as my useless traps that are about as insensitive as I am, and call upon my inner Anton Chigurh. Glue traps will be my multi-use bovine killing machine. And there will be no cheese.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Best in Cheddar

If you do something three years in a row, it's enough to call it a tradition.

Since 2006, my friend Suzanne and I have gotten together on the 2nd Tuesday in February to crowd around the T.V. in my small apartment and watch the annual Westminster Dog Show. We drink bourbon while we coo at the dogs (except the poodles) and laugh at the big-boned trainers awkwardly running around the floor with their coiffured dogs. It's a good time.

I can't remember what we ate on Valentine's Day in 2006 to accompany our bourbon, but I do recall that last year I introduced Suzanne to Lower Eastsiders, a delicious cocktail of bourbon, Dr. Brown's Cream Soda, and a wedge of lime. It's the bi-cultural invention of Mo' Pitkins House of Satisfaction, a hip Jewish-Latin restaurant on Ave. A in the East Village. As my friend Rich said about the drink, it's all that we need to help the bourbon go down more easily! With the cocktails, we ate a zippy salad of radishes, lime juice, and red onion and a black bean dip, covered with baked Cheddar cheese--of course--from Fine Cooking.

This year I tried out a new bourbon cocktail, and I pushed the Cheddar theme. The bourbon cocktail also came from an East Village restaurant, Peter Hoffman's new and conscientious Back Forty. I enjoyed the eponymous cocktail's seasonal mixture of bourbon and maple syrup, but Suzanne reverted back to the Lower Eastsiders after just one Back Forty. But she heartily enjoyed all my Cheddar cocktail snacks: pimento-stuffed olives baked in Cheddar dough (The Gourmet Cookbook), Bite-Size Blue Ball Cheese Balls (Amy Sedaris' hilarious but unexpectedly practical I Like You: Hospitality under the Influence), and spicy cheese straws (the Lee brothers in the New York Times).

The retro snacks were perfect for the bourbon cocktails and for the occasion. They matched the timeless frumpy-ness of the dog trainers and their ill-fitting suits, and they hearkened back to a time when bras and girdles were not as well engineered as they are today. I wouldn't know about this, but Suzanne, who has experience, would gladly advise the trainers on proper undergarments to prevent bouncing and flouncing on their nervous runs around the ring. Unlike bras, Cheddar can be at its best when it doesn't try to modernize itself and go with the times. Like the dogs on show, Cheddar is a classic.

I can see myself making these treats again next year. If they appear again in February 2010, we've got a tradition on our hands.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Top Curd

Full disclosure: I lifted this picture, like most of the photos on my blog, from Google Images, without asking permission from the site that hosts it. Now that I finally have a digital camera, this improper use of photos should come to an end. I just hope that Forfar Dairy, who took this on-site picture, doesn't mind, especially when they learn that I have bestowed upon them the honor of Top Curd.

Forfar is a small but highly regarded cheese-making operation in Ontario, about halfway between Ottawa and Kingston. They make a variety of cheeses with a variety of milks, but specialize in Cheddar, like most commercial dairies in Canada. Their mature and flavored Cheddars attract a following, but it's their fresh cheese curds which make people pull off Route 15 to visit their small rural store (see photo below). The curds are so popular that Forfar makes Cheddar at night, instead of during the day, as is typical. By making cheese at night, they can be sure that they have little plastic bags of fresh cheese curds available throughout the day. Freshness is key when buying and eating cheese curds. Ideally, they should be eaten the day they are made. Eaten a day or two later, they lose their characteristic squeak, when bitten into, and their flavor dulls or becomes unpleasantly bitter and acidic.

All cheese, except for a very few made from whey, start as curds, the coagulated solids of milk formed by the action of acids. When making cheese, dairies separate the curds from the whey and then market the cheese fresh or put the curds into molds and age them from a few days to a few years, depending on the type of cheese. When someone speaks of cheese curds, as opposed to just plain curds, this person is probably Canadian or from Wisconsin and he or she is referring specifically to the curds made during the production of Cheddar cheese, before the curds are shoveled into hoops, pressed, and aged. Cheese curds are widely available in Ontario, and connoisseurs stress that one should buy directly from the dairy to ensure freshness. In Wisconsin freshness may not be as key when they coat cheese curds in a beer batter and deep fry them.

It was back in May 2007 that my Canadian friends, Bill and Elise, and I pulled off Route 15 to buy fresh cheese curds at Forfar for a blind tasting of local curds. After an afternoon spent kayaking on the lake at their delightful cottage near Smith Falls, Ontario, we settled in for the tasting. I didn't necessarily want to know whose cheese curds were the best; I just wanted to get to know curds better. I knew that cheese curds were a regional delight and that was reason enough for me to try them. My interest in cheese curds began when my former real estate agent told me that she always makes a pit stop at St. Albert on her drive up to Ottawa from New York City to stock up on cheese curds. To get better acquainted with Canadian curds, my friends and I picked up three different brands from cheese shops in the market area of Ottawa, in addition to the ones purchased directly at Forfar: St. Albert, St. Albans, and Kingsley Falls. Some of the knobbly curds were orange and some were white, just like aged Cheddars. It's probably no surprise that Forfar came out on top because their curds were the freshest. I definitely enjoyed tasting the four different brands and getting a sense of a regional treat, but I don't think they could ever be a regular snack for me. Popping curds into my mouth as a snack seems just a little decadent. But give me some of those fried cheese curds.... Anyone know where I can get some in New York City?

Final disclosure: This wasn't my first taste of cheese curds. My favorite type to date are the ones that I have stealthily taken directly from the cheese vats at dairies where I've helped make Cheddar for a day. When the curds are this fresh and when they have just been salted, it's like eating popcorn at the movies--buttery, salty, warm, and satisfying. Unfortunately, I don't think you could ever mass produce these cheese curds and put them in little plastic bags.