FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 10/05/2011

On Acquired Tastes, Or The Virtues of French Cheese

October 5, 2011 Volume 4, Issue 11
Faith + Ideas= 

By Damon DiMauro

The subject came up again in my language class the other day, as it invariably does at least once a year: “Why does France have 350 different kinds of cheese?”

Somehow, in the American popular imagination, this seeming superfluous profusion of fromage is emblematic of French frivolity, as farcical as their frou-frou fashion or fickle foreign affairs. After the classroom snickers subside, I find myself casting a forlorn eye on my charges, gently breaking the news to them that, alas, alas, they’ve been deprived, for they’ve probably never tasted “real cheese” before.

They stare back at me as if I’ve just told them they’re depraved, not deprived, but I affirm that nothing could be truer (i.e. the deprived part). Now, French cheese is made with raw milk—the sine qua non for superior quality, anything less would be sacrilege—which explains its complexity and depth of flavor.

On the other hand, the FDA, taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach, holds that unpasteurized cheese is unsafe for public consumption, most notably for the immunodeficient. The upshot is that American cheeses tend to be rubbery and bland (at least to the Gallic palate). And, while an occasional Europhile turophile might bleat with glee to discover a cheese made with raw sheep’s milk at Trader Joe’s, by law, the coagulated milk product has been aged sixty days, at a certain temperature, which kills most potential sources of bacterial infection, and the better part of its flavorful character as well.

It’s hard enough to convince students that their country can put a man on the moon, but can’t make a decent cheese. The harder sell is when I inform them they almost certainly won’t care for French cheese the first time they ingest it. French cheese, like so many gourmet items, is an acquired taste. Moreover, however paradoxically, the gooier, the stinkier, or the moldier means that it’s also all the yummier!

But as I often tell undergrads, though the very first few (or more) times they partake of certain comestibles and potables while abroad, their untrained taste buds might rebel, producing an involuntary “yuck,” at some point shortly thereafter, the miracle will occur and they’ll find themselves swooning with rapturous delight, exclaiming, “How could life ever be possible without chèvre and foie gras?”

More pertinently, the larger point I hope to make here is that higher learning, in its own domain, is also an acquired taste. At first blush, the educational process can appear downright unappetizing. Such sudden exposure to radical difference and unimagined newness translates into boocoo mind-stretching, stamina-building, and comfort-zone-extending. The whole enterprise can seem so, well, for lack of a better word, unnatural! Once, in fact, after making my standard spiel in class extolling the virtues of French cheese, one coed had the chutzpah to blurt out what her classmates were probably thinking, “Why would you force yourself to eat something you don’t like over and over because you might like it later?”

Fair question. My answer is that many others you have known (instructors, alumni, returning study-abroad students) have ventured in this way before, have savored these delicacies, and can attest to their exquisiteness, so maybe there’s something to it. It’s a matter of acting on their testimony and, to borrow a Lewisian metaphor, of stepping through the wardrobe to see for yourself.

At the college where I teach, we’re supposed to be truth-tellers, and truth to tell, from a teacher’s perspective, the unnaturalness of higher learning seems more and more unnatural to students with each succeeding year. Some of the forces at work in society (social networking, secondary-school enabling, helicopter parenting) have not helped. Behind the scenes, we teachers, too, now find ourselves all aflutter trying to keep tabs on at-risk students or to recalibrate our instruction so as to make it more palatable for the new generation.

The good news is that for some, l’appétit vient en mangeant, for the special alchemy of classroom does its magic, the miracle of discovery does occur, and they buy in from the get-go. For many others, it is only much later that they gain an appreciation for their accrued appreciations, that they sense their newfound sensitivities. It is because they have been confronted during their undergraduate years, most likely contrary to their own proclivities, with, as it were, a smorgasbord of alien tastes. Human nature being what it is, they would not have chosen these for themselves even if they knew them to be for their own betterment.

Which is why God gave us the core curriculum. Not necessarily our core curriculum, because it only requires one year of foreign language, but any core curriculum—which, a given institution, in its collective wisdom, deems appropriate for breadth of study. The unsavory fact is some of the swankiest liberal arts colleges in the land have a skeletal core or no core at all. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Dr. Damon Di Mauro is professor of French at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. He and his family live in Haverhill, Massachusetts.