See all those bright orange, multi-foot-long blocks of what we call "cheap cheese" around here, on special at just about every food retailer from here to Timbuktu? Those are today's annual markers of Labour Day.
In these "rich" times when "trade union" is a dirty term and the right wing is vociferously dragging the social conversation evermore right "in the name of the almighty dollar" as my neighbour puts it, it's nearly impossible to imagine that Labour Day was started to celebrate the accomplishments of the labour movement in getting fairer working conditions for people around the world.
I put that out there as context because Labour Day has now become something else entirely: It's the last long weekend of the summer, drawing a regrettable line in the dry sand between socks 'n' shoes and sandals. It's a trope for freedom vs. lack of it, fun vs. practicality, with the former in each case losing out to the demands of back to school, back to routine and back to work, with all those better conditions labour activists fought for and won.
It's the harbinger of last-minute desperation, if, and that's a mighty if, you haven't had your fill of picnics; camping; summer rambles along your favourite byways; or rockin' music festivals in rolling meadows or Loggers Sports Grounds.
But it's that cheese that gets me. Those epic chunks of cheesy orange cheese made from all that gorgeous milk cows have been churning out all summer long. Every time I see a case filled with chunks as big as a size-13 shoe for five bucks apiece, I picture the millions of cheese sandwiches about to be pumped out across the land in the name of convenience and practicality.
Cheese sandwiches in bright pink Svenja Girl Robot lunch packs, and Wildkin Olive Kids' big dot or road construction lunch bags. Cheese sandwiches in the big people's slick, insulated, Thermos kits and stainless lunch carriers (along with a leftover Greek salad or some cold quinoa dressed up with pine nuts), otherwise known as dabbas or tiffin boxes that the dabbawallas in India have been carting around for centuries with homemade food bound for office-bound husbands, but North Americans have only recently discovered the practicality of.
Grilled cheese sandwiches at home for the relieved parents who get to work there, or maybe not, while keeping an eye out for the baby at the same time. Cheese treats for dogs strategically positioned near the counter while sandwich making is underway.
Sandwiches — cheese or not — have been the mainstay of working-class and student lunches alike for generations, mainly because you can eat with one hand and keep on keeping on with the other.
The Fourth Earl of Sandwich, for whom they're named, although he really didn't have anything to do with "inventing" them, supposedly loved sandwiches because he could eat one in one had and continue to play bridge with the other, keeping up his blood sugar levels while keeping up his strategies. Hikers and trekkers love them for similar reasons, although their "bridge" challenges are more physical than strategic.
When it comes to stuffing between the bread, cheese fits the bill in all regards. It's tasty. By food expert Harold McGee's reckoning, it fills our mouth with good flavour because the enzymes from the milk and rennet and microbes break down the concentrated protein and fat found in cheese into a wide range of flavour compounds (some of my favourites when I venture out of the cheap cheese zone, like Swiss and Parmesan, have molecules with the exotic aromas of pineapple and coconut).
It's fast. You don't need messy sauces or time-consuming chopping and fussing — just slice, plop and go. And cheese is neat and tidy, and, therefore, unlikely to fall apart and drip goop onto a laptop or lap.
It's also nutritious. A three-centimetre cube or 30 grams of the bright orange, cheap cheese hanging out in our fridge right now, Armstrong's old cheddar, delivers seven grams of protein and 20 per cent of your daily calcium — perfect for those jangly back-to-work, back-to school nerves. And its high-fat content —10 grams or 15 per cent of our daily recommended allowance; 32 per cent of our saturated fats! — no doubt adds to the comfort food effect.
Do you need cheese to think straight? You betcha. Wired Science even went so far as to ask the question, do nerds like cheese more than ordinary people? The on-line conversation that followed has me convinced, anyway, that nerds are the king defenders of cheese.
Whatever your cheese choice — "cheap" or otherwise — take a tip from McGee who says that cheese should never be served directly from the fridge.
"At such low temperatures, the milk fat is congealed and as hard as refrigerated butter, the protein network unnaturally stiff, the flavour molecules imprisoned, and the cheese will seem rubbery and flavourless. Room temperature is best, unless it's so warm (above 80 F or 26 C) that the milk fat will melt and sweat out of the cheese."
And here I thought that rubber effect was simply a function of my cheap cheese.
But maybe that's why we like cheese sandwiches so much in our September back-to-it lunch bags. By the time we get to them, room temperature as they usually are, the cheese is tastier than ever.
If you want to branch out and decorate the classic cheese sandwich, my favourites are thinly sliced sweet onions, as in Walla Wallas, just rolling in from harvest this time of year, as are ripe tomatoes which, together, can add up to an extraordinary sandwich moment. Add fresh lettuce or mild-flavoured spring cabbage for crunch, and you've got it made.
Take out the greens, but keep the onions and tomatoes, butter the outside of both slices of bread, throw a frying pan on the stove (low-medium) or end-of-season grill, and you'll have the best grilled sandwich ever. I put a pot lid over top of the sandwich right down on the frying pan surface to heat it better and faster all the way through — can you say gooey, melted cheese with a mouthful?
Serve it up with some good olives, dill pickles or those bright yellow piquant Greek pepperonici and you've got dinner as good as it gets in a hurry. Maybe you'll even save enough time to get outside after dinner for a ramble before the light is gone.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who loves her cheese anytime.
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