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By Mel Ramos

By Mel Ramos

America isn’t a big cheese country. We do Velveeta and Cheez Whiz, and when we’re really adventurous, we ask for that so-called blue cheese dressing on our salads that is really no more than ranch dressing a few weeks past its expiration date. thunderbird wine

Velveeta, of course, isn’t cheese at all. It is officially a ”cheese food product.” That is, it’s a congealed block of yellowed lipids and tastes as much like cheese as Thunderbird wine tastes like Bordeaux. And the new cheese substitutes are worse. They may be healthy, but are they food? Ever tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich with that synthetic stuff? It doesn’t melt, it blackens at the edges and buckles under the heat like linoleum.

Anyone for a scorched floor tile sandwich?

All this came to mind as I searched town for some Gorgonzola. For those who haven’t developed the taste, that is an Italian blue cheese that is greenish and runny, with a smell like laundry left damp too long in the washing machine. It is a taste that grows on you. Of course, something grows on the cheese, too.

But it made me consider how taste changes as we age. When I was young, I ate Hostess cupcakes like everyone else. Adults seemed to like beer and brussels sprouts. Kids drank soda pop, adults drank coffee. SONY DSC

Now that I’m old enough for my toes to start growing funny, I have learned to like rutabagas, glazed parsnips, pickled herring, Stilton cheese and single-malt scotch.

And those cupcakes are poison. As an adult, I taste every gram of sulfated polysaccharide, every microscopic speck of potassium sorbate and monoglyceride. A Hostess cupcake really and truly tastes to me now like an eighth-grade science project.

For me, it all began changing when I was about 18 and one day I tasted coffee for the thousandth time — and for the first time, it tasted good. Really good. manischewitz

I had sampled wines when a child — my parents would give me a little Manischewitz, which is really only fruit syrup with a kick — and I would make a sour little face.

Suddenly, as an adult, I tasted something really dry from France and wine seemed like ichor. Perhaps a little Alsatian Riesling to taste with foie gras and onion confit. Later, I developed a taste for Greek retsina, which tastes the way turpentine smells. It has character.

Then came yogurt, lassi, kefir, Roquefort cheese, herring, corned beef, horseradish. pear and gorgonzola

As kids, we like Hershey bars, as adults we come to enjoy a slice of pear with a bit of cheese.

Maturing taste is certainly not restricted to food. Most of us wear different clothes as we grow up, leaving the sneakers and T-shirts behind. We grow out of our metal-fleck magenta Mustangs with the flames on the hood.

Although not everyone matures: The other day I saw a BMW with racing stripes.

And we stop reading Nancy Drew and take on Eudora Welty. We go from Tchaikovsky to Bruckner and Schoenberg. From Modigliani to Poussin.

Nations go through the same transitions, though on a vaster and slower scale.

It takes centuries for a culture to create and enjoy a Poussin, a Goethe, a Corneille. They are vegetables and whole grains of the art world. And only cultures with enough maturity come to appreciate them. Poussin

France, with 10 centuries of history, can nurture a Samuel Beckett or a Sidney Bechet. Italy, with 20 centuries of history, can’t feed enough opera to its truck drivers and factory workers. The fine arts in those countries are a part of their national identity.

But America, with its two measly centuries, is still a fuzzy-cheeked pubescent soaking up Lion King.

Until America starts eating stinky cheese, it is futile to expect it to support the arts.


It is a commonplace that America is materialistic, that it grasps after money and wealth and lacks the spiritual values it used to have.
Of course, that nostalgic view ignores that Americans have always chased wealth: It’s built into the Constitution.
But more importantly, it ignores the fact that America isn’t really materialistic at all, and in fact, is largely indifferent to the material world.
If we were really materialistic, we would never tolerate walnut-woodgrain plastic.
No, the physical composition of their existence is simply not a high priority for most Americans. Yes, they are after wealth, but wealth isn’t a material value, but a spiritual one.
When we say Americans “worship the almighty dollar,” we aren’t saying that they value material objects over spiritual ones, but rather that they place worth on one set of spiritual values instead of another, more worthy set.
Money, after all, isn’t a physical object. It isn’t material. It is no more physical than an inch or a pound. It is a measuring item, to measure wealth.
Real wealth is the possession of useful or meaningful things. To own land, or to grow 40 acres of artichokes is to possess wealth. You can eat artichokes; you can’t eat money.
Money cannot be worn, it cannot be used to build with. It must be translated back from its symbolic existence to a material existence by spending it.
I’m not saying that money isn’t nice to have around. But that it is a mental construct, not a physical reality. If we want money, it isn’t because sewn together, dollar bills make a nice quilt.
Even the things Americans spend their money on tend to be owned for spiritual rather than physical reasons. If we want to own a BMW or a Lexus, it isn’t because these are better cars than a Honda or an Ford — though they may be (I’m not convinced) — but because they are status symbols that let other Americans know where we rank on the totem pole. Armani suits and Gucci bags are not something most Americans really enjoy on a physical level. They are the civilized equivalent of the eagle feathers the chief wears, or the lion-ruff anklets worn by the Zulu leader: They confer prestige and denote status.
These are spiritual values.

As a matter of fact, America would be a whole lot better off if it were more materialistic. The planet is bursting with stuff: It all has a texture, a feel, a smell, a taste, a sound. If we were materialistic, we would be aware of how much richness the material existence affords, and we would revel in it. We would be mad — as Walt Whitman says — for us to be in contact with it.
And what is more, the deeper we involve ourselves in the physical world, the more spiritualized we will become — that worthy spirituality. It is because we are so unmaterialistic that our environment suffers so. We don’t value the physical world we live in. It doesn’t bother us that there are fewer birds singing in the morning, or that codfish are disappearing.
In part, this is a remnant of the contempus mundi that was fostered under Medieval Christianity. It is that suspicion of the physical world that the Old World monks felt would seduce them from the righteousness of prayer and ritual.
We have inherited the contempt, but without the prayer. It leaves us in a hollow place.
As an adult I have come not to trust anyone who doesn’t love the physical world.
I don’t trust him to make policy choices about oil drilling or lawn seeding. I cannot imagine how it is possible not to fall in love with the things of this world, but I see just that happening all the time.
I pick up the lump of spring earth and squeeze it in my fist to judge whether it is time to plant my potatoes. I listen for the birds globing and twisting as they rise from the trees in the morning. I look for the light caught in the cholla spines and the twill in my gabardine. There is velvet in heavy cream and scratchiness in wool blankets.
The physical sensations make us more aware, more awake. The love of the physical world keeps us from becoming dullards. Living in a world of symbol and status dulls us. At its worst, it leads to ideology.
Would that America really were a materialistic society.