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Cheese Questions from a Fifth Grader

Sometimes all it takes to slow one down in the midst of a crazy busy, cheese-cutting, cheese-selling, cheese-eating holiday season is a hand-written letter from a fifth grader.

Checking my post office box this morning resulted in a lovely collection of Christmas cards from friends and colleagues, a large pile of cheese equipment catalogs, a newsletter from the local senior center, and a letter from Sumayya, a 10-year-old from Quincy, Massachusetts, zip code 02169.

Guess which piece of mail I opened first.

Dear Ms. Jeanne Carpenter,

My name is Sumayya. I am 10 years old and I am a student in the fifth grade.

I am studying cheese for my topic all year long. I got interested in cheese when I went to Whole Foods in Hingham, Massachusetts and saw all of the delicious, different, and colorful varieties of cheese.

I will use the information you provide in my report. Of course, I will use the information. It came from a cheese expert!

Enclosed is a self-addressed envelope, a tea bag, and five questions. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a cup of tea while – please do – answer my questions.

Thank you for your time. I really, really, really, really really appreciate it. 

Well, Sumayya, not only will I drink your tea and answer your questions here on Cheese Underground, but you can also expect a large envelope full of cheese-related information coming in the mail to you soon. But first, let’s answer your questions.

1. What is your favorite type of cheese? Why? (Mine is smoked Swiss because it is sweet as well as tangy).

Excellent opening question, Sumayya. It’s always a good move to ask someone their favorite cheese. My favorite type of cheese is washed-rind: sticky & stinky – think Taleggio from Italy, St. Nectaire from France, Grazier’s Edge from Minnesota, and Kinsman Ridge from Vermont. I attribute my love of savory, meaty cheese to the fact that I grew up on a beef farm and ate meat & potatoes every day for lunch and dinner (although we referred to these meals as dinner and supper). Washed-rind cheeses remind me my favorite childhood Sunday noontime meal: savory roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. I can still picture my mother making gravy on the stove – which incidentally, is the one food I excel at cooking. Gravy makes everything better.

2. What is the most complicated part of making cheese? (I would say drying the cheese is most complicated). 

Another solid question. And Sumayya, you are on to something about drying cheese. Any cheesemaker worth her salt will tell you that making a good cheese is the successful combination of two things: 1) making cheese and 2) aging the cheese (also referred to as affinage). I should point out that I am not a cheesemaker, nor do I ever aspire to be one – there’s a reason I have a B.A. in English (it’s called little to no math requirements) – and cheesemaking is all about science. If Kenny Rogers would have written a song about cheesemaking instead of gambling, it would have gone something like this:

You’ve got to know when to check the pH
Know when to drain the whey
Know when to cut the curd
And know when to wait
You never count your cheese forms
While you’re stirrin’ the cheese curd
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the cheesemakin’s done

Also, now that I’m re-thinking this, you probably shouldn’t actually watch the Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” video link referenced above – it’s full of messages not suitable for a 10-year-old. Moving on.

3. Is smoked cheese better or plain cheese better? Why? (I think smoked cheese because it adds more flavor).

Sumayya, I’m sensing you may like smoked cheese, which is awesome. Smoked cheese is one category of many types of cheese, and it’s all a matter of personal preference. In Wisconsin, lots of folks enjoy a good smoked Gouda. Smoked cheeses are particularly popular during the holiday season and during winter, because, I suspect, they are a comfort food. They make us feel good. I don’t know if you have long winters in Massachusetts, but here in Wisconsin, winter often starts in November and lasts through mid-April. A good smoked cheese can chase a bad winter day away.

4. Do you know of anyone else I could contact for my project? If so, please give name, address, zip code, and phone number.

Holy cats, I can think of about 20 people who are more qualified to answer these questions than I, so I am going to compile that information and put it in the mail to you. If you wait until January 1 to mail your questions, you are more likely to get a response, as everyone here in Wisconsin is currently obsessed with making, selling, cutting or eating cheese for the holidays.

5. What do you think will be the future of cheese? Will there be more or less as an average per year? Why?

Well, Sumayya, as long as there are 10-year-olds out there like you, I would say the future of cheese is pretty darn bright. Cheese consumption in the United States keeps growing every year. We are seeing an increase in the number of artisan and specialty cheesemakers, resulting in a world where American cheeses now compete on the same stage as the great European cheesemaking nations. Cheese is recognized as a healthy source of protein, perfect for kids to grow up strong and healthy. Plus it’s yummy. So cheese is here to stay.

Happy holidays, Sumayya. And watch your mail for a package of cheesy goodies.

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