Anyone who’s ever had a good subsidy knows the magic of “government cheese.” For those who don’t know, it resembles cheddar in texture but is not unlike Velveeta; it’s vaguely processed but with a resistant, hard-cheese feel. It’s orange in the way that traffic cones and Donald Trump are orange and comes in large, rectangular blocks that wouldn’t be out of place in an institutional kitchen. It’s meaty and vaguely rubbery, and it doesn’t melt so much as congeal when warmed. Truly, it can be made appetizing via only two dishes: macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. This story is about the latter.
One Saturday morning in the 1970s, my cousins Lisa and Leslie were at my house (they frequently slept over on the weekends). We played and watched cartoons in my bedroom until around 11 a.m., when we got hungry. I went into my parents’ room to ask my mom what was for breakfast. Unfortunately, she had taken to bed with what I knew only as “not feeling well,” one of any number of maladies from which she suffered: bad kidneys, high blood pressure, anxiety, abdominal issues from a past surgery. I recognized we’d have to get our own food.
As young children, none of us had cooking experience, but we decided to make grilled cheese sandwiches anyway. The first step was getting the government cheese out of the refrigerator. I’m sure that Lisa—the oldest—took it out, as she had long enough arms to carry the corrugated box o’ cheese to the kitchen table. The next step was slicing pieces off the huge rectangular hunk, which wasn’t an easy task for young, small hands using dull knives. We didn’t get slices so much as irregular, squarish slabs, but we crammed them between slices of white bread and promptly fried them in a well-margarined pan anyway.
We had a few mishaps. A sandwich may have hit the floor. Another sandwich may have burned on both sides and smoked up the kitchen. Yet another sandwich or two may have landed on the stove’s white surface, leaving slicks of oleo, slimy cheese, and breadcrumbs in their wake. We probably made six sandwiches to get three that were suitable for eating. And weren’t those three magic: the perfect combination of golden brown crispiness, an even distribution of margarine, and a creamy blob of cheese with the consistency of hot lava.
While we were eating, my mom came downstairs, saw our mess, and hit the roof. She chastised us about cooking unsupervised and dirtying the kitchen. She told us to clean up and went back to her room.
Being about as skilled at cleaning as we were at cooking, we grabbed some jugs from under the sink and poured their contents into a bucket. Fortunately we didn’t die from noxious fumes that day—we had no idea what chemicals we were mixing together. But the combination smelled like a clean house, so we proceeded to use the blend to clean the stove and table and even to mop the floor. We were proud of ourselves, planning to bottle our concoction and make millions. We even made up commercials for it while standing in the kitchen. We thought my mom would be so proud of the job we did, and when we went upstairs, we were sure to be quiet so as not to disturb her.
About an hour later, my mom hollered my name from downstairs. We scrambled through the house and pulled up short at the kitchen, noticing the floor had turned white. We hadn’t known that our house had vinyl flooring—and that vinyl floors need wax. My mom yelled at us again, and we were thoroughly deflated. She waxed the floor that afternoon—alone. We sulked in front of the television until my aunt came to pick up my cousins.
These days, my family and I laugh at this story. I told it—with much embellishment— at the rehearsal dinner for Leslie’s wedding, where it was especially funny since she still isn’t much of a cook. Luckily my own kitchen skills have improved considerably, and now I make my grilled cheese with fontina, muenster, and provolone on sourdough (cooked in a mix of real butter and olive oil, thank you very much). But I’ll always remember government cheese. Not because it was particularly tasty, or because it was beneficial for my family, but because it gave me a fun memory amid my mother’s sickness. If someone made me a grilled cheese with government cheese today, I probably couldn’t eat it—it would be far too salty for my current taste. But I’d still take one bite, just for the memories.
Illustrated by Tom Bingham