There’s a question that’s been on my mind for most of my life: what exactly is cottage cheese? This came to the forefront when a friend of mine told me cottage cheese is making a comeback. I never knew it had a going away. I thought it was always there. The idea that it’s suddenly become hip or trendy sounds like fashionistas saying, “The big new thing this season is air! Breathe it in!” I nearly said “water” but then I remembered that there’s tap, sparkling, spring, mineral, well, distilled, alkaline, infused, and reverse osmosis. I’m sure every season trend-makers get together to decide which one is “in” and there’s a water cycle you don’t learn about in school unless you go to advertising school, but that’s another story.
At some point I realized cottage cheese was just curds and whey with a different label, but “curds and whey” has a negative association with Miss Muffet and spiders so advertisers got together and came up with an alternate name, something that would sound more benign, and you can’t get much more benign than a cottage, a little home in the woods, unless you happen to be Hansel and Gretel. I’m sure “cottage cheese” was a term that got picked up at a time when more people were moving to the cities which led to a faux nostalgia for rural life which city people mistakenly assumed was simpler, far from the madding crowd and all that.
I also know I’m exaggerating the role of some advertising cabal, a proto-Don Draper who looked at a big bowl of curds and whey and said, “The only way to sell this is to rebrand it.” I know the term “cottage cheese” was probably just a common term that people used—a shorter way of saying “we were going to make cheddar but ran out of time, so how about some of this slop?” That’s why there’s not a specific brand of cottage cheese—it’s a general term.
I can’t remember when it was that I finally decided to eat cottage cheese but I’m pretty sure it was in my early teens. For a long time it scared me a little. I didn’t think it was going to attack me, although at times it did seem like something horrible could be hiding under those lumps, but, like a lot of kids, I was weird about food. I didn’t like ketchup or mustard, in spite of never having tried them, and I couldn’t go near hot dogs for a long time after I made the mistake of looking one in the eye. I loved green olives and could eat an entire jar but I preferred them without the pimentos—although I’d still eat one after looking it in the eye. And I wouldn’t eat pimento cheese because it looked like cheese that had been processed by someone who got their hand caught in the grater. Taste is a funny thing. Things I didn’t like, or thought I wouldn’t like, when I was a kid I now enjoy. I put mustard on hot dogs, and also ketchup, to the horror of my Chicago friends, but I’ve never developed a taste for tomatoes or green peppers.
When I did finally try cottage cheese, at an age when I was starting to be more adventurous, I was surprised that it was pretty good. It wasn’t so good that I regretted not trying it sooner—there were other foods I felt that way about—but it wasn’t bad. It’s just there.