Monday, February 7, 2011

Say Cheese!

When I first wrote this column for a bilingual website in 2001, it was a mild diatribe about the cheeses used by Americans in international dishes. I havc calmed down a bit since then and don't get so upset when someone uses a cheese from one country in a dish from another. At that time I was especially peeved with Cheddar in Mexican dishes.

Recently that changed when I started to wonder why nachos were called nachos. Nacho is a nickname for guys called Ignacio. So, I did a search and found out immediately that the creator of nachos was indeed a gentleman from Rio Piedras, Mexico named Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya. In 1943 just as he was closing the club where he worked, a group of American women came in wanting something to eat. He hurriedly put cheese (either a Wisconsin cheese or sharp longhorn Cheddar) on tostadas (fried tortilla pieces) and topped them with jalapeños. The full story can be read at After reading that article and a slightly different one on Wikipedia, I realized that I had to change my attitude about how cheeses are used in various dishes.

Many American grocery stores sell an item called Mexican 4 Cheeses--or something like that--but the cheeses are Monterey Jack, Cheddar, asadero, and queso quesadilla. It's true that asadero and queso quesadilla are Mexican cheeses but Monterey Jack and Cheddar? How did they get in there? Monterey Jack was supposedly created by a Scotsman named Jacks from Monterey, California in the 19th century and not someone from Monterrey, Mexico. However, there are some who claim that the cheese came from Spain via Mexico to California and that Jacks simply appropriated the cheese as his own. Whichever story is true, Monterey Jack is now considered to be an American cheese. And Cheddar originated in Cheddar, England!!!

México has many wonderful cheeses. Why then, would someone include an American and an English cheese with Mexican cheeses and call them al Mexican? Now, I’ll admit that I have substituted Monterey Jack for Mexican white cheeses and the taste is similar, I suppose, but that’s because I don’t always have access to Mexican cheeses.

Many years ago when I attended the Instituto Tecnológico in Monterrey, México, the cafeteria there served fabulous meals--my first foray into eating Mexican meals. My favorite dish was chiles rellenos—poblano chiles stuffed with white cheese--queso blanco, cooked in a batter, and served with fresh salsa. Several years later my son and I went to a popular chain restaurant in Oklahoma that supposedly specialized in Mexican cuisine. Noting that the restaurant offered chiles rellenos, I ordered some and eagerly awaited the dish. As I began to savor the first bite, I realized in dismay that the chile was stuffed with, of all things, Cheddar! The taste was not the same, to say the least.

However, I do like Cheddar cheese but chiles rellenos conjure up a delightful memory for me--of a very special flavor from my college summer in Mexico. It’s the cheese that makes the taste so unique. From my point of view, certain dishes require certain cheeses. A Reuben sandwich needs Swiss cheese, an Italian pizza must have Italian cheeses, especially mozzarella, and English shepherd’s pie is made very tasty with, yes, Cheddar. I, at least, expect a certain taste when I bite into certain dishes and changing the cheese changes the taste.

Of course, the cheese police aren’t going to arrest anyone who mixes and mismatches cheeses. According to, Cheddar is the most popular cheese worldwide. I find that rather hard to understand although I love Cheddar in American macaroni and cheese casseroles and there's nothing like a grilled cheese sandwich made with sharp Cheddar.

Americans, of course, specialize in mixing up ethnic dishes (a true melting pot) and I’ll admit that there are many combinations that I love. I’ll eat a fajita pita any day. But if you’re going to mix things up, why not give these dishes a new name? I first ate nachos in Matamoros, México many years ago and, to be honest, I don't remember what kind of cheese was used, but the cheese was not that processed cheese glop that some fast food places use. If one wants to make a dish similar to Mexican nachos with gloppy cheese why not call them glopchos? Okay, I'm being silly. No one is going to change the name. And please don't forget the jalapeños. Or call all dishes that are derived from Mexican dishes Southwestern or Tex-Mex? The new combinations may be as tasty as the old--although that’s open for debate.

A friend once told me that he must have Cheddar in tacos, on enchiladas, and on pizza. But wait a minute, on pizza? Well, to each his/her own.


Marja said...

Well, you've managed to give me a craving for cheese. Any cheese will do at the moment.

Good story, and I probably won't look at cheese in the same way again.

Palmaltas said...

Thanks, Marja, nothing wrong in craving cheese. Or how you look at it although obviously I'm a little fussy when it comes to cheese but I can adapt to the changes in cuisines.