Did Priscilla Alden Do the Stinky?

April 15, 2012 · 11 comments

In the autumn of 1974, my mother was asked by a mutual friend who purported to be a Yemeni princess to take part in a fashion show at the United Nations.

My mother, who spent many of her formative years as a showroom model and upon whom a burlap sack still can look like it came from Barney’s, had no experience with Yemeni national dress; still, she looked fabulous that day, marching down the runway in a cavalcade of multi-national glory. After the show was over, everyone repaired to my mother’s ex-boyfriend Tom’s apartment in the East 70s. Tom, who was friendly with the Greek husband of the Yemeni princess, was what my grandmother called a regular playboy; he raced cars in Monte Carlo, spoke six languages fluently, played Chemin de Fer with Porfirio Rubirosa, was indicted by Bobby Kennedy, and had recently become my father’s business partner. Everyone was very progressive.

Which is why, I suppose, I was invited to the fashion show, and then, naturally, to Tom’s party. At 11 years old, I was the youngest person there by far, and when Tom’s wife put out the food on their carved oak dining table near the apartment window, there was a lot that wasn’t familiar to me. All these years later, I remember at least three different kinds of flat bread, some coated with a fine scattering of what I now know to be nigella seeds. There was a beige dip, which I distinctly remember as having a peculiar tongue-coating quality to it; it was probably hummus. And then there was cheese, all of it soft, and all of it very runny.

Together, we stood a few feet from the table — me, the Yemeni princess, her Greek tycoon husband, my Brooklyn father, my Dashiki-wearing Jewish mother, Tom’s half Choctaw, half Irish wife, and someone named Dan, who claimed to be the drummer for Chicago. Suddenly, like the creeping angel of death cloud in The Ten Commandments, an invisible blanket of pungent stink so heady, so thick, so completely traumatic, began to envelop us. We all looked at each other obliquely and began to wonder. Was it me? Or the tycoon? Was it Tom? Or the guy from Chicago? I looked at my mother, worried, and moments later our little international circle of friends broke up and floated to opposite ends of the room, where the air seemed to be just a bit crisper.

But children are inevitably compelled by the disgusting. I was also really hungry, and so back to the table I strode, and despite the foul funk emanating from the cheese plate, I tore a piece of flatbread in half, and swiped it down into the thick, creamy goo, taking some of its soft orange rind with it. My eyes teared furiously, but I persevered — I preferred any cheese to the creepy beige spread that stung my taste buds — and became incredulous when, shock of shocks, I found that it was mild and delicate, and even slightly floral. It was gorgeous, and sweet, and utterly, seductively, addictive. That day marked two key life experiences: the server that Tom hired kept handing me glasses of orange juice which, unbeknownst to either of us, were Screwdrivers, and which got me completely polluted for the first time in my life. And by the time the party was over, I had eaten an entire round of Epoisses all by myself.

Stinking drunk about covers it.

To this day, I am drawn to Epoisses — to any pungent washed-rind cheese — like metal to magnet. Plunk me down in a cheese shop, and I’ll almost always by-pass the crumbling Wensleydale and the remarkable Humboldt Fog (both of which I adore) if there’s washed-rind to be found. A few weeks ago, on my way home to Connecticut from Manhattan, I stopped off at Murray’s Cheese Shop at the Grand Central Station Market, and asked for Munster, which is as stinky, if not actually stinkier, than Epoisses.

“You mean sliced deli cheese?” the woman behind the counter snarked.

“No, I don’t mean sliced deli cheese–” I snarked back. “I assumed you knew what I was talking about—” I added.

She blushed; Munster — real AOC Munster from Alsace — is about as far away from the delified dreck that we’ve compressed it into as orange American Cheese singles are from Isle of Mull Cheddar.

The sales woman softened; she had none left, she said.

“Anything like it?” I asked.

“Unfortunately not,” she apologized, shaking her head.

I thanked her for her kind help and started to walk away when I saw a perfect alternative, wrapped in foil and left out at room temperature, where it was sure to be tender and runny and its odor chokingly remarkable.

There it was: 1960s American Joke Cheese.

Limburger. 

I had never eaten it before, but I grew up in an era when, if Lucy wanted to irritate Ricky, she’d serve Limburger to the big movie producer he was bringing over for dinner. Limburger showed up on Love, American Style, and Green Acres, and I’m pretty sure The Brady BunchGrowing up in the 1960s and 70s, Limburger was everywhere in America, but only as a punchline. My maternal grandfather — the one who owned a furniture store in Brooklyn before Williamsburg was cool, and who kept homing pigeons on the roof, and who looked for all he was worth like James Joyce, and whose apocryphal girlfriend-on-the-side happened to be a nun — loved Limburger but had to fight the birds for it because my grandmother made him store it on a plate on the fire escape.

So I bought the little block of Limburger, and it sat on the train with me, softening and warming and reeking right through the double wrapping of foil it came in. I pretended not to notice; Susan, who was sitting next to me, didn’t look up. We love stinky cheese that much. When we got it home, I opened it, and prepared for the worst: surely, Lucy and Ricky and the Brady kids and everyone else I watched on television as a child couldn’t have been given to that much hyperbole. And mostly, they weren’t; the stuff stank to high heaven, but was so utterly and completely delicious swiped thickly across a slice of dense bread that we swooned. It was as good as the best Munster d’Alsace I’d ever eaten, but no more pungent than either it or Epoisses. It was just a really unctuous, powerful washed-rind cheese; almost every good American grocery store carries it in one form or another, and for years I had ignored it thanks to pop culture, even though it was right there under my nose. As it were.

Weeks later, I recounted my experience over lunch of pastrami and latkes at Katz’s Delicatessen with the Seattle-based food writer and chef, Becky Selengut, who dubbed Limburger Joke Cheese when I told her my story.

“But why do you think it is,” I asked, “that Americans have no place for strong, washed-rind cheeses in our historical culinary lexicon?”

Becky, who is not only rapier smart but so funny that every time she spoke I had to stop sipping at my Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic, considered my question.

“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “the Pilgrims and the Puritans who came here showed up with hard, sharp cheeses, and not the sexy, runny stuff.”

She was right, of course. Their cheeses were probably meant to last in a utilitarian way that was devoid of the kind of devilishly sensual ooze that typifies the very best washed-rind cheeses when they’re at their most gloriously foul, and best eaten with luscious fruit at the height of ripeness. Sensuality — gustatory or otherwise —wasn’t so much on their agenda. But the French? The Italians? A Greek tycoon and his Yemeni princess wife?

Porfirio Rubirosa?

Bring it on.

“I mean,” Becky added, looking at the table, “can you imagine Priscilla Alden—?”

I saw her in my mind’s eye: Hey John, c’mon over here big boy, the cheese is perfect—

Not so much.

It was their loss.

 

 

 

 

 

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 kitchenriffs April 15, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Very nice post. I haven’t had Limburger for years. In fact it took me years to dare to try it – that aroma! It’s my mother’s favorite cheese, so when I was young we had it in the house often, but being young and unformed I was more a cheddar kid. My loss. Now, of course, you made me just have to have some! For which I thank you.

2 Rocky Mountain Woman April 16, 2012 at 1:50 pm

HAH! My maternal grandfather had to keep his limburger on the back porch and I can remember holding my nose and running past it. My grandmother just wouldn’t let it in her spic and span German kitchen that had a big jar of sauerkraut fermenting away on the counter. I have wondered for a while if I need to try limburger with my new and improved grown up palate. You have inspired me! I will pick up some tonight on the way home from work…

3 Katherine Whiteside April 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Love this post. Love stinky cheese. Had a BF once who said it smelled like a Pampers-full. I mean, how un-evolved can you get??

4 Garrett April 20, 2012 at 12:33 am

Loved this post. I work in cheese and have yet to ever try The Big Stink. I should remedy this…

5 Elissa April 20, 2012 at 9:53 am

Garrett, you SHOULD! I love the phrase: “I work in cheese.”

6 Imen April 25, 2012 at 5:08 am

Love this post. Conjures up stanky memories of my dad secretly eating possibly his favourite cheese upon chunks of caraway rye in the garage so that he didn’t irritate my mother.
I finally tried Limburger in Germany last autumn. When I ordered it, the waiter looked at me in awe. When it came to the table, he looked at me strangely again and seemed to gesture to my husband to start digging in (is it meant to be a man’s cheese??? Oy!). When I finally began nibbling on a piece, he simply sped away from the table.
It was a lot stronger than I remember my dad’s Limburger (prob was) and actually not quite bearable for me, but it came with some chunks of caraway rye so I just sat there picking away at it, filled with happy daddy memories and a smile.

7 mdvlist April 25, 2012 at 1:38 pm

You make me smile AND make me want to go eat disreputable cheese.

8 Angela May 1, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Thank you for the wonderful tale of stinky cheese! Maybe because I loved my grammy very much and maybe because she introduced me to Limburger….just one whiff of a strong cheese and I’m transported back to her kitchen where we slathered the smelly stuff onto little squares of pumpernickel. Now, that I think about it, she often had braunschweiger in the fridge alongside the Limburger. I think we ate them together.

9 Cleo May 2, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Grew up eating Limburger and ripe blue cheeses. Thanks to my paternal grandfather and my father. Loved it on little rye cocktail bread slices.

10 Ilke May 6, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Your story telling is amazing, refreshing. I strive to achieve the same tone in my writings and after reading your posts, I realize I have lots of growing up, practicing to do. Or as we say in Turkey, I have to “eat 40 bakeries worth of bread” :)

11 Deb July 30, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Just catching up w/ your posts and came across this one and laughed out loud! Think I even see stink lines emanating from my monitor…..Please let me suggest the best stinkiest cheese on the planet, well—-at least in my corner of the planet. Cato Corner Cheese, from Colchester, CT makes HOOLIGAN, and it is such good bad stuff, that you will set off seismic stink meters across up and down the road just trying to get it home. We get it at our Higganum Village Farmers’ Market or I’m lucky enough to obtain a wedge or two from a couple of fresh fromage shops nearby. But Liz McAlister, owner of Cato, is in several New York farmers’ markets, and you can also find this cheese on line. It is, again, seriously bad, but I am seriously mad about it. I love it with figs and pears and all by itself gobbled up and washed down with a local vineyard (again, lucky to live near several local vineyards, but then again, everything in Connecticut is local). If I buy too much Hooligan, meaning- if there is ever a leftover chunk living in our cheese drawer in the fridge, my son has been known to find it and draw nuclear radiation warning signs on the wrapper, and then triple wraps it in layers of smell proof plastic armor. But I know his work, and it smacks of his latent love for my holy festering stink package. Because I know, if he really hated it, it would not be so carefully swaddled and sequestered in the back of the drawer; he’d have tossed it out in the woods. No. His careful re-packaging means only one thing; Mike likes my stinky cheese too.

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