The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Friday, February 11, 2005

GRILLED CHEESE: The question of the grilled cheese sandwich is ultimately one of existential philosophy, unlike, for example, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the vigorous objections of some neo-Hegelian philosophers notwithstanding, which deals with questions of theodicy and the ileum, or the philosophical materialism of tuna fish on a hard roll with chips and a Dr. Pepper on the side. No, the grilled cheese sandwich raises all sorts of profound philosophical questions, such as who am I, does God exist, and what is the role of cheese in the greater scheme of things, especially when, as an American processed cheese food product, you are not at all certain that you qualify as cheese in the first place.

European cheeses, by contrast, do not face this constant existential angst, which is surprising since most of the leading existentialist thinkers were big cheese eaters; all Parisians knew that Sartre ate Brie morning, noon, and night, and that Camus’ craving for Stilton was an open secret at the Deux Magots. Secure in their cheesiness as a powder blue leisure suit, European cheeses are never uncertain of their identity or where they fit in the overall scheme of things. There is scarcely a cheese anywhere in Europe that does have a legion of fanatic admirers stretching well back into history, even if the cheese smells so bad that the impartial observer can’t tell if the people in the room are eating the cheese or cutting it. Most people know that Philip II of Spain launched the Spanish Armada against England in order to secure a constant supply of Cheddar and that after the failure of the Armada Philip would not deal with his rebellious Dutch subjects for fear they would find a way of cutting off Spain’s supply of Gouda and Edam cheeses. Henry IV turned Catholic to secure the French throne; Paris, he said, was worth a Mascare, although he paid a high price for it; his assassin, Francois Ravaillac, was a fanatic partisan of Roquefort. Supported by a long tradition of cheese making, the European cheese, no matter what its provenance, finds itself in the admirable psychic position of knowing exactly who they are and what people expect of them in that role.

American cheeses do not have that psychological luxury. They come into the world unsure of who and what they are and what their role in the cosmic order of things might be, and they go to the grill without knowing even the most basic information about themselves. Faced with this uncertainty, one can see why American cheeses lead all the world’s cheeses in rate of mental illness per thousand slices, and many surveys of American cheeses display shockingly high rates of anomie and disaffection from the larger society, which manifest themselves in all manner of social dysfunction. The reasons for this should not come as a surprise to the informed psychosocial observer. If you take the time to look at the packaging of your average slice of American cheese, you will clearly see, in clear and unequivocal English, that the contents within are “processed cheese product” or sometimes “pasteurized processed cheese food” or some other polite euphemism containing the word cheese, leading the unsuspecting American consumer to suppose that because the wrapping contains the word cheese the inside of the package must also contain cheese as well. This is not always the case, as the taste and color of many American cheeses owe less to the skill of the cheese maker and more to do with the ingenuity of the American chemical industry. The effect this has on a young American cheese is usually nothing short of devastating. Faced with an uncertain provenance, unsure if they even qualify as cheese, the American cheese faces an always bitter battle for acceptance and self-respect in a world that usually takes an unkind view of them.

Geometry compounds the American cheese’s struggle for self-respect. Studies performed at my house by my niece and her posse of fourteen year old gal pals show conclusively that cutting a grilled cheese sandwich into two diagonal halves, as opposed to the traditional straight across slice, leads to profound learning disabilities and cancer in white Canadian laboratory rats, although the skeptical observer can always point out that everything causes cancer in white Canadian laboratory rats, including blowing your nose in the general direction of Canada. Still, people have died because of the way they cut their grilled cheese sandwiches. In South Central Los Angeles, members of the feared Crips gang cut their grilled cheese sandwiches into square chunks, while their rivals, the Bloods, prefer to take the crust off first and slice the sandwich into a series of small triangular wedges. The results, I fear, were entirely predictable: customers died in droves as shootouts erupted between the two gangs on a daily basis in fast food restaurants from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean. The situation got so bad that the Los Angeles City Council banned the making and selling of grilled cheese sandwiches anywhere in the city, and now devotees of grilled cheese must drive over to Beverly Hills or Burbank to feed their obsession. Similarly in Northern Ireland, the manner in which you choose to cut your grilled cheese marks you as either a Protestant or a Roman Catholic, with Protestants preferring a simple crosscut pattern that divides the sandwich into four easy bites, whereas the Catholics prefer slicing the bread straight from top to bottom without crosscutting. The significance of the patterns is unknown, but scholars have found fossilized grilled cheese sandwiches in sites along the southwestern coast of County Kerry that suggest that the straight down pattern came to Ireland with the Celts in the fifth century B.C.E.

So then, what is the deeper meaning of the grilled cheese sandwich? Can we even say that the cheese undergoing the grilling by police who suspect foul play in the case is even cheese in the first place, or some sort of changeling dairy product fobbed off on the nation by the denizens of darkest Wisconsin, who seem intent on keeping the best cheeses for themselves? Wisconsin’s decision to put a wheel of cheese on its state quarter points to a cheese hoarding conspiracy so vast that it dwarfs any previous attempt to hoard the nation’s cheese, even the attempt by black marketers to corner the nation’s supply of mozzarella during the Second World War, a plot that implicated high ranking police officials from New York to Chicago and back again twice and the fan dancer Trixie Bellini, the Toscanini of Tush, better known, or maybe not known—they always denied they were her parents—to her mom and dad as Myrna Weinstein of Rego Park, Queens, in a cabal designed to seize all the mozzarella in the country under the guise of confiscating enemy property and then selling the mozzarella to pizzerias as a fifty percent markup. The plot failed due to the unstinting work of the Truman Commission and the undercover work of Gypsy Rose Lee, who never liked Trixie Bellini; she thought Trixie was a trollop that gave exotic dancing a bad name. What any of this has to do with the deeper meaning of the grilled cheese sandwich is, of course, anyone’s guess and one that I do not feel qualified to comment on; why you don’t like grilled cheese is entirely up to you.


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