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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.