I’ve been writing a lot of lists lately. Lists about movies, about science-y things, about sperm whales, about movies… did I mention that already? Well, now it’s time for something different. It’s time to get personal… to let you, the reader, see the real me. Today, I have a confession to make:
I don’t like cheese.
I can’t explain myself; I used to love it like any real American. I remember greedily gobbling down slices of cheese for lunch as a toddler. Pizza was the food of the goddamn gods back then. But things began to gradually change. At age 5, I’d be eating lunch before going to kindergarten, lunches which always included a mozzarella stick. As my first year of school went on, I started to notice that if I took too big of a bite of the mozzarella, it was… difficult to swallow. I felt like I was going to gag and cough it back up, even though I used to love it. I had to eat the sticks more and more slowly; eventually it got to the point where I was in danger of missing my bus if I didn’t get that damn stick down quicker. Finally I asked my mom to stop including them in my lunches. She was surprised, but, saint that she is, she didn’t give me any trouble over it. So I was free of those damn cheese sticks, and beyond that it was cool. Slices of cheese didn’t trigger that gagging feeling, and pizza was still… well, pizza. Little did I know that this cheese issue would progress. By age 7, I greatly preferred my pizza to have toppings on it as opposed to plain cheese. By age 9, I needed at least pepperoni. By age 12, pepperoni and sausage were both required. Cheese on anything else was a thing of the past by this point.
Today, possibly owing to a love of greasy meat, I still occasionally eat pizza… so long as it’s COVERED with pepperoni and sausage, as well as crushed red peppers, garlic power, and enough oregano to turn it green, and it doesn’t have too thick of a cheese layer to begin with. Even then, the frequency of my cautious pizza eating has been dropping over the last year or so, and I am wondering if I will eventually retire pizza from my menu, leaving me completely cheese free.
Note that I purely and simply stopped liking cheese. So far as I can tell, I’ve never had any digestive issues with cheese. I might want to gag when I try to eat it, but never once in any instance where I choked down some cheese to be polite or avoid trouble have I ever gotten sick from it.
So what? I don’t like a food. Lots of people don’t like one food or another. Unfortunately, not liking cheese, at least in the United States, isn’t as simple as you might think. I specify the United States since cheese isn’t a common food everywhere in the world. I happen to live in a place where it’s quite popular, unfortunately. So, guess what: I have another list, namely of the ways in which not liking cheese sucks far worse than not liking most other foods. Maybe I should just start telling people I’m lactose intolerant…
4: Cheese is Everywhere
As I’ve alluded to above, cheese is a pretty common food and ingredient here in the United States. Sometimes it seems like it’s everywhere and in everything, like my whole world is one big Olive Garden commercial. Seriously, take a look at a restaurant menu some time. So many foods have cheese in them. Italian restaurants are basically out for me, and Mexican restaurants can be quite dicey, too. I’ve reached the point where I greatly prefer to order a dish that by the menu’s own default description has no cheese in it. Just try ordering anything that has cheese as a component minus the cheese. Your chances for success are questionable. I don’t tend to blame the waiting staff here; they understand that I don’t want cheese. I think the kitchen staff, however, is on autopilot. All day long some chef has made a certain dish with the cheese on it; it’s easy to miss that the latest order says “no cheese.” Ordering something without cheese, getting it with cheese, and sending it back might not sound that bad, and I would agree that in the grand scheme of things it’s a very minor annoyance. It gets old after years and years of it, though. Have you ever had to deal with a minor but frequently recurring nuisance? Has it ever gotten so old and frustrating that you just can’t stand it any longer? That’s what the general ubiquity of cheese, especially in restaurants, has become for me. At least I can always order chicken tenders with BBQ sauce… at least until some restaurant starts putting cheese on that, too. (I’m looking at you, Olive Garden…)
I suppose I should also mention what I’m going to call the “hamburger/cheeseburger paradox”: I typically love hamburgers, and have eaten many in my day. But there’s a caveat: We have “hamburgers” and we have “cheeseburgers.” I always felt those were two separate things, even when I still liked cheese. Once cheese and I broke up, however, I noticed that there’s apparently no fucking difference between them at all! I’ve encountered a select few restaurants that actually differentiate between hamburgers and cheeseburgers on their menus, but they’re wonderful exceptions to the apparent general rule: that cheese is as integral to the hamburger as the beef itself. This means for many restaurant burgers I have to always be sure to specify no cheese. Of course there’s always the chance that I’ll still get cheese on it. Fast food places are the worst in that regard; the staff is exceptionally on autopilot I guess.
Remember what I said above about getting really sick of a repeated minor annoyance? I came to realize that I was getting way too bent out of shape over the cheeseburger thing when I was 20. I was going to see a movie, and I stopped at a Burger King beforehand. I ordered a big-ass triple whopper value meal, and of course I specified no cheese. (I specified the other things I didn’t want on it too, and it seems like no one ever has trouble with no lettuce, no mayonnaise, etc.) I knew I was taking a risk, as I might not have enough time before the movie to get a new burger if mine came back cheesed, but I was hungry. Well, I got my food, sat down in as isolated booth as I could find in the very busy Burger King, and unwrapped my burger... It had cheese on it. I felt that familiar annoyance and frustration set in, and I looked up at the huge line at the counter. It didn’t occur to me that I could just walk up to the cash register and ask for a new burger in my case, and I thought I was screwed. I was starving, the movie was going to start soon, and I only had fries to eat now. So… I lost it. I punched the whopper. Doing so caused some of its grease to fly up and hit my cheek. I wasn’t expecting this, and it startled me. I stared at the smooshed burger for a few seconds; I imagine my face might have been turning cartoon-level red. Then I lost it some more. I rained blows upon the whopper and tagged the booth and table a few times for good measure, too. The family sitting nearest to me decided to eat very quietly with their eyes glued to their meals. Only after this outburst did I realize I didn’t have to wait in line again to get a new burger. So I wrapped the triple whopper’s remains in its paper and walked up to the counter and calmly told them that I ordered one with no cheese. Never have I seen a more confused-looking cashier as I handed my messed up order back to him; my burger looked like it had been through a war. I got my new whopper, wolfed it and the fries down, and made it to the movie in time. As I sat in the theater, I realized that I’m really starting to go nuts over the cheese thing… and that I probably shouldn’t go to that Burger King for a while. So yes, I beat the shit out of a hamburger once. I’m not proud of it, but looking back, I do think it’s kind of funny.
3: We’re All Way Too Obsessed With Food
Bill Branson, National Cancer Institute
I’m not saying that we love our food too much. Hell, I love eating. I don’t have much self-control when it comes to foods that I like. But in general it seems like people have a tendency to over-ceremonialize their meals. To me, eating, while wonderful, has the primary and central goal of nourishing my body and/or presenting my tongue with pleasant tastes. To most people, eating is a much more social thing. I certainly understand this concept; I’m just less used to it than most people even now as an adult. Plenty of developmental psychologists will tell you how critical the earlier parts of one’s childhood can be in shaping things, and I spent a good chunk of mine rarely ever having the traditional family dinner. A lot of the time it was just my mother and I living together, and she was busy keeping at least a rickety roof over my head. Many dinners for me were eaten in front of the TV by myself, and I was cool with it. Up until a certain age, I genuinely thought that was normal and the families that ate together at a kitchen or dining room table were the weird ones.
I’m not saying anything’s wrong with the social and ceremonial attributes that most people ascribe to eating, but it can lead to problems for a cheese non-eater. Think of how many important social functions and life moments typically have eating attached. Weddings, job interviews, in-laws, diplomatic functions that can start freaking wars if something goes wrong… there are plenty. This means that I’ve inevitably encountered situations where cheese is assaulting my nostrils and congealing on every available food, and I would be well-advised to eat some. Pro tip: some people are insulted if you don’t eat. I hate those situations. There’s no easy solution. In my experience, it’s frequently not been as easy as saying, “sorry, I don’t like cheese.” That’s because…
2: People Can’t Accept That You Don’t Like Cheese
Quite literally. Many people simply cannot accept the idea of someone not liking cheese. That may sound hard to believe, but it’s true. They think there must be some huge mistake. It’s just not possible! Maybe you just had a bad experience with cheese once? You may not like other cheeses, but surely you’ll like whatever cheese dish they want you to eat. They know you will. (Since clearly they know you better than you do…)
Bill Branson, National Cancer Institute
“I’ve been through hard times; that means I know everything.”
I have never encountered another food that people have such a hard time accepting someone not liking. For example, my wife doesn’t like tomatoes much, and she’s never been given any trouble over it. I’ve known a few people that don’t like ketchup! I’d say ketchup is almost as ubiquitous in the United States as cheese, yet I’ve never seen anyone give the ketchup-haters shit for their preferences. It’s different with cheese. I think I know why: Cheese is special. Other foods are foods, but cheese is cheese. It’s a treat. All of the best foods have cheese. That gooey melty goodness is a delicacy that you must eat whenever there’s opportunity, and you’d better be grateful for it. (Melted cheese’s seemingly infinite ability to stretch and propagate annoys the hell out of me, by the way.) I remember commercials for some cheese food where a gaggle of kids are all happy and literally screeching cheeeeeeeese!!!! It was the 90s; commercials were cheesy like that.
To some people: if you don’t like cheese, you might as well be a terrorist. It’s simply unacceptable. And once they finally get it through their head that you really don’t want to eat cheese…
1: People Will Think Less of You for Not Liking Cheese
This facet of not being a cheese eater annoys me the most, as I think one’s food preferences should be indicative of nothing more than their food preferences. That often doesn’t seem to be the case, of course… If you don’t like cheese, there’s something wrong with you. There isn’t an ounce of humor or exaggeration in that statement. People really will react that way, and they will remember, permanently thinking less of you than before. Maybe it’s because cheese is so special to so many people; maybe it’s due to all the emotional energy that often gets invested into mealtimes. Both are probably a factor. Whatever the cause, it happens and I get quite tired of it. Either cheese-hating is one hell of an unwritten social faux pas, or I’ve managed to know a disproportionately large number of assholes in my life. (The latter is possible.)
Sometimes the cheese people get angry. I remember an evening when I was 7 years old and actually having one of those traditional family dinners for once. Both of my parents were there, and we were having lasagna. Of course this lasagna contained ricotta, which I have just now decided to call “the Splooge of Satan.” I used to be able to eat lasagna just fine, so I didn’t know what was coming. This time, however, I gagged and coughed it back up on the first bite. It was the ricotta. Somewhere along the line, it had become the worst of all the cheeses I’ve ever encountered, and remains so to this day. If I must, I can take small bites of most cheese foods and not gag, though it’s not at all enjoyable. Even the smallest glob of ricotta will be an instant gag, however. Predictably I was encouraged to try to eat the lasagna despite that first bite, and I tried. Small bites were still unbearable, and even scraping that gourmet bird shit off didn’t help much, as its flavor had permeated the other lasagna components. Finally it was clear that I just couldn’t eat it. My father simply couldn’t accept this turn of events. He decided to grab me by the head and force feed me a big chunk of lasagna. Even the force feeding attempt didn’t work. My gag reflex won, leaving only a mound of extremely… well-blended lasagna. My father yelled “damn fucking Anthony!!!” and kicked one of the chairs. I don’t really remember what happened next; he might have just stormed off. But he was pissed. The chair (with a metal base) that he punted smacked up against the ceiling. Clearly I had failed big-time. I’m not telling this story as some kind of sob story or attempt to get internet sympathy, mind you. I just can’t think of a better example of someone having trouble with another person not liking cheese.
Perhaps I should call these “Devil Dicks.”
If the list you’ve just read sounds ridiculous: it’s because it is. I don’t see any reason why not liking cheese has to cause so many problems, but it does. Hell, even my own grandma wanted to know “what the hell was wrong with me” when I once brought up the fact that I don’t like cheese, and I’m referring to my nice grandma. I don’t think anything’s wrong with me, but I may be in the minority on this. Not liking cheese (in the United States, at least) is a real pain in the ass.
Oh, one last thing… for all of the cheese annoyances I just described: Double them if you have an Italian-American family as I do. Yeah…I do need to start claiming to be lactose intolerant. People understand that. (I think…)