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.
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 Bunch. Growing 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?
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.