The Shadow
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The Shadow

A Tale of the Orange Cheese

Remembering a 1980s Icon

Photo: https://www.vice.com/en/article/wn7mgq/wtf-happened-to-government-cheese

My face was flushed with light when I opened the door to a vibrant orange block of cheese that irradiated the dim interior of our refrigerator. Like a jewel of celestial lights, this block of cheese retained its luminous glow once placed on the kitchen counter. As if wrestling a flapping fish, my mom hovered over me to constrain the cheese on the cutting board. She used her cleaver to lop off several slices to place on the bed of rice in my bowl. I scaled a stool to watch her put it into the microwave. The cheese dissolved into the rice and formed a light orange film that sizzled and bubbled on top, emitting a slight burnt scent that seeped into the eternity of my nasal memory.

Known as government cheese, this cartoonish colored cheese was distributed to low-income families through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program that started in 1981. Fitting the imagery of wealth and excess, the U.S. government stockpiled 30 million pounds of too much cheese that accumulated due to price support programs for dairy farmers enacted in the 30s. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to release the excess cheese to states that wished to give it to poor households (In the same year, Reagan cut spending on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).) This cheese was subsequently distributed to food pantries, school lunch programs and other welfare programs, which eventually made it to my family’s kitchen chopping board.

For my parents, this cheese and other government subsidized items, which included peanut butter and butter, represented additional sustenance for the family. To me, this cheese represented a piece of Americana that connected me to the larger social fabric that I only knew about through TV commercials — a world where people drank milk with their meals, used salad dressing and owned toasters that trained sliced bread to jump acrobatically into their hands. In my household, we drank broth with our meals, cooked our vegetables with oyster sauce, and used a wok to twirl grocery produce and harvest into an orchestral frenzy.

I looked forward to my grandparents coming home with the block of orange cheese, sometimes wrapped in Chinese newspaper as if trying to shelter a street bandit. Not shy about his flashy appearance, the orange cheese suavely mingled with the cans of fried fish with black bean sauce and the plastic cartons of thousand year old or century eggs. As if naughty by nature, the orange cheese flaunted his USDA shirt while chilling on the stoops of the projects in the Lower East Side. With his boom box, the orange cheese tantalized the salt and pepper sitting precariously on the stove top while playing that funky music with his Chinese brother — fu yu (fermented bean curd), AKA “Chinese Cheese.”

Learning that other cheeses existed besides government cheese expanded my social consciousness. On a trip to Pathmark, the community supermarket, my brother and I strolled down an aisle less traveled and gawked at the sight. We witnessed various cheeses pinned to an opaque wall as if cornered in some alleyway: white cheese, sliced cheese, shredded cheese, cottage cheese, and cheese riddled with holes. I interrogated them: Why haven’t I seen you here before?! Where are you from? Where are your documents?! The tension was mitigated when my mother swung around wielding food stamps that allowed us to select one of the cheeses from the line-up to bring home. In the kitchen, we sat the store-bought cheese and orange cheese side by side, and noted that despite their different tastes, texture, and appearance, they were all part of the American mosaic.

Eventually the halo of the orange cheese that illuminated the humdrum of our kitchen subsided without fanfare when I was in middle school. In high school, I memorized the names of different cheeses at the assembly line to build my own sandwich for lunch. I followed my peers and gratuitously sprinkled bacon bits and shredded cheese on my salad. As a sign of my social advancement, I now scrutinize cheese samples at Whole Foods as confidently as the orange cheese walking into my living room and turning on the television like he belonged there. Sometimes I think about the orange cheese with nostalgia and a slight pity that my son will not experience that exquisite taste of humble swagger and gustatory humor of my childhood.

My toddler pitter-pattered to the kitchen after me. He whipped around the corner just in time for me to cram a cookie in my mouth. ‘Mommy mommy yummy yummy,’ he chimed. ‘Time for a snack la?’ I asked him in Cantonese-English. “Si si!” he responded as he would to his Peruvian nanny. I opened the fridge for him to scrutinize. His index finger shot up like a rocket and then inched left and right like an antennae until it detected and aimed at the brie cheese I had strategically placed out of sight. Brie is too exquisite for a toddler’s untrained taste buds I had unwittingly thought. “Jee jee! jee jee!” he piped excitedly. I smeared the jee on several crackers and laid them out in a floral formation on his plate.

My son’s face radiated as he crunched and smacked his lips to the testimony of a well fed child in a country where 11 million children still go hungry every day. Comforted that my son is far from facing food insecurity, I thought about the pressure my parents must have felt working to keep the family afloat on a waiter’s income. Government assistance certainly alleviated the burden. More importantly, as if the Statue of Liberty had leapt across the New York harbor to deliver the cheese, the gesture of benevolence engendered a sense of welcome and a social connection for immigrant families making a new home in a foreign country. As I hovered over my son to spread another layer of cheese like fresh fallen snow on his crackers, I felt the warmth of my mom hovering over me chopping pieces of bright orange cheese onto my rice. As if standing too close to Lady Liberty, the orange cheese melted into my bowl under the sparkling flame of her torch.

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Lisa Lau

Lisa Lau

Insomniac, knowledge thrill-seeker, leisure and cathartic writer

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