Monroe’s wedge of cheese history

(Photo by Vanessa Druckman)

One of the pleasures of the transition to adulthood is the discovery that there are far more adventurous and rewarding choices on the cheeseboard than that familiar plastic-wrapped slice of yellow American. Suddenly a whole new world of intriguing fromage flavors opens up to you. Some you’ll love and some you’ll hate and some you’ll savor in minute quantities. The Hudson Valley has certainly stepped up to the artisanal cheese plate in recent decades, with specialties from places like Coach Farm, Sprout Creek Farm and the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company commanding the respect of foodies from near and far.

But there’s no denying the earthy truth that cheese is comfort food at heart. And no matter how sophisticated your palate has grown, or how sincerely you have embraced the locavore ethos, you may find that there are moments when you crave one of those crunchy, greasy grilled cheese sandwiches of your youth. You may even sometimes think back fondly on days of yore when you wrapped a length of thread tautly around your hands to carve off a translucently thin slice of (dare I say it?) Velveeta.

Don’t be embarrassed; even that doyenne of suburban good taste Martha Stewart announced last year on National Public Radio, “I love Velveeta!” And you’ll be in even better company this Saturday, September 7, if you mosey down to the town of Monroe in Orange County: The birthplace of both Liederkranz and Velveeta itself will be holding its annual Cheese Festival, complete with a cheesecake-eating contest at 1 p.m., a grilled-cheese-cooking contest at 2 p.m. and a talent show called the Monroe Idol Contest at 4 p.m.

To Clifton Fadiman, cheese was “milk’s leap towards immortality”; to James Joyce, it was “corpse of milk.” To Monroe, cheese is an essential component of local history, prosperity and the town’s sense of self. You can read town historian James A. Nelson’s full account on the Monroe Cheese Festival’s website, but here’s a shorter version of the tale:

A German immigrant named Julius Wettstein founded what would become the Monroe Cheese Company in 1873. His line of German, French and Swiss varieties of cheese was an instant success, but his wife’s ill health sent the family back to their homeland five years later. The cheese factory continued to thrive through numerous changes of ownership, registering trademarks for “Fromage de Brie,” “Neuchatel” and “d’Isigny.”

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