Aged in America

Age of the Geek: It is amazing the things you can learn on a slow day.

Last week I discovered that my entire life I'd been living a lie. My world was shaken like a near empty container of grated cheese when I found that the Kraft 100% Parmesan I've used to top my pizza and pasta for my whole life wasn't real Parmesan.

I know what you're thinking.

"Kraft is the company whose signature products include a block of semi-solid cheese-like substance and a box of macaroni with a packet of orange powder. You thought their Parmesan was legit?"

And yeah, I always figured that the traditional Parmesan making process didn't involve mixing it with cellulose powder and potassium sorbate to keep it tasting fresh for months after opening. But the deception goes deeper than that.

As it turns out, "Parmesan" isn't just a strange word from a dead language to describe something that tastes good on pepperoni. The word is derived from the three Italian provinces that are, by European law, the only places legally allowed to produce that specific brand of cheese.

These protections are serious business in Europe. While here in the states we'll let anybody cram some grated cheese into a green tube and call it Parmesan, over in the EU the term Parmesan, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, is tightly regulated. Enough so that its American-made imitators have to label their products as "Pamesello," a word that is, much like the product itself, fake but just similar enough to the original to get the point across.

This was an eye-opening discovery. For as many different cheeses as I've eaten in my life, I've never really considered why any of them were named the way they were. It never occurred to me that Asiago was an Italian plateau or that Cheddar was a village in southwest England. It certainly never occurred to me that those locations were the legally protected home regions of those specific cheeses.

Nor did I realize that we have the same naming conventions here. Monterey Jack originates from Monterey, CA while Colby, its frequent partner in deliciousness, is named after its home of Colby, WI. I suppose it's obvious once you think about it, but how often does one really think about it?

That said, we're far less strict about our own protected designations, at least when it comes to cheese. While Florida orange juice must be made with Florida oranges and Tennessee whiskey has a complex designation history, our cheese legalese more-or-less runs on the system of "if you can fake it, you can make it."

Which is fine.

I don't know if there's much of a difference between Cheddar made in Cheddar and Cheddar made in Wisconsin, but I'll bet they're both pretty good on a plate of nachos.

Still, this loosey goosey philosophy is how we get contradictory cheese names like "Vermont Cheddar" or "American Swiss."

Speaking of American Swiss, this hole of cheese naming madness goes even deeper. One would think that if Cheddar comes from a town of the same name, surely Swiss cheese originates from Switzerland.

Well… kind of.

Unlike Cheddar, when Americans started making Emmental cheese, originating from the Swiss valley of the same name, we rebranded it entirely as "Swiss Cheese." So, for all intents and purposes, Swiss cheese is an American invention.

Oh, but we're not done yet. Baby Swiss, a Swiss cheese variant developed in Ohio, was created by Alfred Guggisberg, a Swiss immigrant cheese maker. So Baby Swiss is an American cheese made by a Swiss cheese maker named after the American variant of a cheese that originated from Switzerland.

Which is, appropriately enough, a very American way of doing things.

And while Baby Swiss, Vermont Cheddar, and Monterey Jack are all cheeses that are made in America, they are not to be confused with American cheese, which is, ironically, not legally cheese at all. American cheese is made out of a blend of cheeses and processed until it's something else entirely.

That says a lot about us as a country. Not all of it great, but still it's a pretty apt metaphor. America is the great melting pot after all. It turns out that melting pot is a fondue pot.

Whether it's imported from its native land or produced right around the corner, no matter where a cheese comes from or what it's called, they all have a place on our dinner table.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and has spent entirely too much time this week thinking about cheese.