Poet's Notebook: A friend in cheeses

Memories and traditions can be built on the most unlikely things.

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“Virginity breeds mice, much like a cheese.”

—said by Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare

Last April, when my sister Carol asked me how I was doing, I complained I was overworked from giving so many readings because it was National Poetry Month. Unimpressed by this vision of exhausted poets around the country, she pointed out that it was also National Grilled Cheese Month. Who knew?

“Isn’t that interesting?” she asked.

Actually it is. For one thing, it helps cut against the irony of all these month-long celebrations, like Human Trafficking Month (January), Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), etc. Shouldn’t we think of these things more often, and read a poem outside of April?  

It’s like putting the Commandments on the calendar: In March, we’ll stop swearing; in June we shall not kill; in July we won’t commit adultery... Well, we’re a pretty forgetful country — how did we get into Iraq? — and can use reminders. That’s why we have these irritating National Months, and Post-it Notes.

On the other hand, it’s delightful to hear about Weight Loss Awareness Month (January) and National Forestry Mulcher Month (February), not to mention National Ice Cream Month (July). Some odd ones make us smile, like Alopecia Awareness Month (September), as we have a friend with that condition — bodily hair loss — who enjoys getting some publicity about his obscure disease.

Talking with Carol helped me realize that, despite growing up in Brooklyn on a diet of Kraft pre-cut orange-colored cheese sandwiches on soft white Wonder Bread, real cheese has played a frequent part in our gustatory and imaginative lives. In the Army, stationed in Germany in 1956, a friend and I took a long weekend furlough for our first visit to Paris. An image that pops up, from early in our visit, is of us sitting on the steps of Montmartre with a baguette, a bottle of cheap red wine, and a very smelly hunk of Camembert cheese we bought randomly at an exotic and crowded “Crèmerie.” It tasted strange and strong, and we wondered, do we hold our noses, do we eat this rind? This (or the wine) made us laugh, and as we passed the bottle and washed the gummy cheese and chewy bread down, we couldn’t have been happier than if we were sitting at the bar in The Four Seasons.

Fifteen years later, the Meinke family went to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, for a year. Right away, we went to the neighborhood tavern, Le Café du Pont, and ordered the specialité of the city, cheese fondue, which we’d never tasted. With it, I ordered beer for us, and milk for the children. The waiter exploded with indignant emotion. “Mais non, monsieur, pas de la bière, pas du lait! Seul le vin blanc ou de l’eau!” Cheese fondue is now one of Jeanne’s specialties, and I always recite to our guests:  “No beer! No milk! Only white wine or water!” (And once, when a guest observed that fondue must be a lot of work, Jeanne said, “It’s not so bad,” pointing out that I cut the bread and grate the cheese — at which, our late dear friend Ken Keeton raised his hand and solemnly pronounced, “Ah yes, Peter the Grater!” This, too, alas, has stayed in the family.)

One other cheese ritual takes us to England. Every two weeks we drive to Mazzaro’s to pick up the items for our biweekly “Ploughman’s Lunch”:  a couple of apples or pears, a chutney with kick, maybe a pickle or two, some fresh crusty bread, and a wedge of Stilton Cheese. We already have some Smithwick’s Irish Ale in the refrigerator.

Once home, we’ll spread these out on our wooden kitchen countertop. I’ll pop the Smithwick’s, we’ll sit down, click our glasses, and immediately fly 4,000 miles: Hello Dove Pub, hi Patricia, hey Damien — great to be in London again! What’s up?

What a friend we have in cheeses,

Mozzarella, Cheddar, Swiss!

Bleu and Limberger’s sweet breezes

Lingering like a lover’s kiss...

—from a traditional parody @ The Mudcat Café, mudcat.org

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