Picture, if you will, Easy Cheese, a "pasteurized cheese snack" that comes pressurized in a can. Imagine an orange coil of it deposited on a piece of pilot bread. As a kid growing up in Anchorage, this was cheese at its most exotic and forbidden.
This was the '80s. Food horizons were wider than when my parents were growing up here but they were not yet truly wide. Powdered milk still made appearances. Fruit was almost never ripe. My mother didn't approve of cheese in a can but she did support mild orange cheddar, bought in a large block at the supermarket. Or, on a fancy occasion, a small triangle of brie. This, to me, was where the cheese world began and ended.
A few years after I graduated from college, I went to dinner at a friend's house in Juneau. After we ate, he brought out a small parcel wrapped in butcher paper. Inside was soft, pungent cheese he'd carried in his suitcase from New York City, where he grew up. He cut a shiny, ripe-smelling chunk, smeared it on my plate and drizzled it with honey. If I paid attention, he said, I could detect the flavor of salty grass from the seaside pasture where the cows grazed. I tasted carefully. And there it was. Grass and sea salt. Cheese was far more interesting and delicious than I realized.
Helen Howarth opened the city's only specialty cheese store, Fromagio's Artisan Cheese, last month. She grew up in Anchorage as well and had similar cheese memories. Hers was a Velveeta-loving household. That's what made sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. Her first taste of fancy cheese also came from a suitcase, from a friend of her mother's visiting from France. It was a Roquefort, creamy and stinky. She fell in love.
"It was an absolute knock-your-socks-off thing," she said.
She started visiting cheese shops on vacation. She'd always ask for the owner's five favorite cheeses and then bring them home.
"That's how I learned about cheese," she said.
And last year, looking for a change after a long career in arts administration, she decided to take her cheese love full time. (Though she's quick to say she still has nothing against Velveeta.)
But would Anchorage get it? Is there really a market for fancy cheese in a town where we hang plastic man parts from trailer hitches and the line for the Dairy Queen drive-thru is always long, no matter the hour? Fancy cheese is expensive. Some of it is overrated. Wouldn't it seem a little snooty?
You'd be surprised, she said, as we stood inside her little strip-mall store off O'Malley Road. Just the day before, a guy had showed up in a car that seemed entirely held together with duct tape. He left with $100 worth of cheese.
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