Remembering Commodity Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Today’s Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Once again, Some Day came for a food item in my house–this time in the category Leftover Bits of Cheese Saved in the Freezer, Intended for Macaroni & Cheese Some Day.  The double wrapped packages included slices of dill havarti left from late summer sandwiches, chunks of Colby-Jack, and a half-used bag of shredded cheddar preserved from potential spoiling before a trip out of town.

This assortment made me think about cheeses of the past, specifically, a lack of variety in days gone by…

When my former spouse and I lived in student apartments, we received Commodity Cheese. The distribution of this calcium and protein source, otherwise known as Government Cheese, dated back to World War II when it was fed to soldiers; in the 1980s, we were told it served to purchase excess milk from American farmers (in order to stabilize prices), and also to assist the hungry. Our family income, clearing the high four figures, qualified us as hungry, or potentially so. Other commodity products included powdered milk, greasy pork and canned vegetables. But the most common item, and the rubbery backbone of the program, was the cheese.

It was so ubiquitous that the local grocery store sold keep-fresh containers for the 5-pound blocks of what looked like American or Velveeta, but was actually a variety of cheeses blended together with emulsifiers. A whole set of recipes grew around using this hunk o’ dairy, since each month we received at least one block. Several times we received two huge bars of cheese (ten pounds total), along with ten, count ‘em ten, pounds of butter. What the hell? we laughed. And they can’t figure out why poor people might have weight problems?

Sometimes that wrapped slab was the biggest thing in our fridge. We were lucky–relatives sent us grad-school care packages, and for years we’d been part of natural foods buying co-ops, so we were able to spend our very limited food budget on other, healthier items. In addition, our family received WIC coupons, which enabled me to vary the kids’ meals with cereal, juice, eggs, peanut butter and milk.

We used up our Government allotment in grilled cheese, cheesy rice, cheesy grits (for the southerners), cheesy potatoes, cheesy eggs. My favorite recipe, shared around by the industrious Moms, Dads & Tots Group, was “Pasta Salad.” Not many fancy ingredients—a box of white store-brand elbow noodles; diced Commodity Cheese; a chopped green pepper; if you had it, chopped up Spam; and a dressing made of equal parts mayonnaise and mustard. Sounds a little scary, but it actually tasted pretty good; served cold, it was a nice side dish, and heated, a filling dinner. Of course, we all had our recipes for macaroni and cheese.

I say “we” because it was a community blessing and curse, that cheese. Almost everyone in the cinderblock apartments received it. I don’t know what the international students thought of it, if they ever got used to this strange, squishy, egg yolk-colored American fare. Our other cheap go-to food (at five cents a package), Ramen Noodles, was at least familiar to some of them, albeit originally in a spicier, tastier form.

The parents’ group also hosted International cooking nights. We learned how to make dishes from Burundi and Pakistan, Ethiopia, China and Peru. We U.S. natives cooked our regional specialties and holiday recipes.

I don’t remember Commodity Cheese appearing in any of these showcases.

We used it when we had to, but weren’t thrilled with it; we might have been materially poor, but we were proudly not culturally or creatively poor.

Nowadays I don’t yearn for that situation of having fewer ingredient choices, but I do miss the comradeship of the particular community that received and dealt with those yellow bricks.  I am reminded of what can be accomplished when people of different cultures and backgrounds come together in a mutual task–whether that is making food you can stomach out of something odd, or greater goals.

****

My macaroni and cheese in 2012 is made with with more vegetables than carbohydrates, and carefully chosen smoked mozzarella, chèvre, Muenster, and so on–certainly none requiring a special Keep Fresh container. The carrier for these artisanal cheeses is Tinkyada brown rice pasta, or locally made Flour City noodles, accented with fresh garlic and herbs.

This sounds like food snobbery, but isn’t intended to be so; when given the option, of course we crave variety and subtlety in our food, to please our particular palates–and if we don’t have options, we humans make do, often with inventiveness and humor.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Here’s what I made the other day, with those odds and ends. I brought back chopped sweet peppers from the good ol’ “Pasta Salad” days.

  • 8 oz Pizza Pasta from Flour City Pasta
  • 2 oz dill havarti slices, 4 oz Colby Jack slices, and 3 oz shredded cheddar
  • 1/2 diced green pepper and 1/2 diced red pepper
  • basil, Community Gardens dried parsley, garlic salt
  • 1 cup 2% local milk
  • 2 eggs (of course–brown, free range, local, from the farmers’ market!)

Cook the pasta according to directions but deduct a minute or two from the boil time, mix all the ingredients, and bake at 350 for 15 minutes in a toaster convection oven, until the top noodles are getting a little crispy and the cheese is all melty (adjust as necessary for your oven). Serve with big heaps of steamed sliced broccoli.

If you are wondering, it’s four servings @ 475 calories each.

And it's so good heated up the next day, too!

And it’s so good heated up the next day, too!

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