LET'S PLAY a word association game. I'll say "cheese" and you'll say "American." Right? Wrong. While certain sections of this country, notably Vermont, New York and Wisconsin, produce excellent cheeses, our mainstay, that pre-wrapped, pre-sliced "sandwich" favorite American-processed, does not make the grade. Cheese is to milk as wine is to grapes. Sadly, American processed cheese is closet to Ripple.

Read the ingredients and flinch. Condensed whey, water, non-fat dry milk, sodium phosphate, lactic, citric, acetic acids -- where, oh where is the cheese? What little cheese is found in the manufactured product is the runt of the litter. Underripe, gassy and imperfect, these cheeses are rejected from the elite curing rooms of their more regal cousins and banished to the processing plants. There they are heated, rolled and generally abused, producing pallid, spineless cheeses that, through mass advertising, have become popular in this country.

There is romantic legend long associated with cheese-making. A lone rider supposedly set forth on a journey toting milk in his leather pouch fashioned from the stomach of a young cow. At the end of the trek he discovered that his milk had been magically converted to a slightly sour, curd-like mixture, surprisingly palatable.

Actually the history of cheese is far older than this legend. Its birth really began around 9000 B.C. when animals were first domesticated and produced more milk than could be consumed in the fluid form.

Ancient Greeks bestowed the coverted title "giver of cheese" upon Apollo's son Aristaeus. Their Olympic athletes were convinced of its macho benefits and trained on a cheese diet. Wealthy Romans had kitchens designed expressly for cheese-mking, while the commoners brought their cheeses to public smokehouses for curing. From Caesar's legions to the armies of Genghis Khan to the infamous Swiss Knights, cheese has long been a convenience food, easily carried from border to border.

To grasp the complexities of cheese, or, as Clifton Fadiman dubbed it, "milk's leap to immortality," you should understand its nature. The common denominator of all cheese is milk whether it comes from cows, sheep, goats or even reindeer and buffalo. Regardless of source, there is always an induced separation of the milk into curds (white, creamy lumps) and whey (cloudy, thin liquid that is the residue). Rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach of cows (remember the lone rider?), or any bacterial culture is the catalyst responsible for this breakdown of milk into its component parts.

The intricacies of cheese are evident even in this initial process. The outcome is affected by milk's changing role from one type of cheese to another: heated or kept cool, skimmed or enriched with cream, the result of one milking or several. The curds are cut small or large, drained slightly or thoroughly, pressed or left alone, sprayed with mold or not, allowed to ripen in a moist environment or dry.

With such a complex background how can we distinguish excellence from mediocrity? The standards by which cheeses are measured are as complicated as those of wine. Like wine, educating your own palate will become the ultimate answer.

The choice of a market or specialty shop with a wide and comprehensive selection of cheeses is important. This provides the opportunity to select a particlar cheese from a specific area. Since every corner of the world produces its own cheese and since you are unlikely to experience them all, here is a cheese primer to get you started.

All Cheddars are dry and bitey, with a lingering smoothness after the initial tang. Canadian is the creme de la creme of Cheddars, closet to the English farmhouse version. It is dry, flaky and wonerfully sharp. Colby is an American type of Cheddar which is packaged in "log" form or is pre-sliced. It is very mild and pleasant and even appeals to "non-cheese" people.English Cheddars fall under many names: Cheshire, Gloucester, Double Gloucester and Wensleydale. Their textures and a strength vary according to area but they are all rather mild. New York Cheddar is perfect for cooking, melts easily and appeals to a variety of palates. It is available "mild," "sharp" or "extra sharp." Vermont Cheddar is quite unusual. Although it possesses the dryness of a classic Cheddar, its unique flavor can be described as woody. Avoid the "Port Wine" Cheddars and the processed Cheddar "spreads" made from the whey.

Jarlsberg is a Norwegian cheese, similar in appearance (but not flavor) to Swiss cheese, and the only one imported from Norway to America. Jarlsberg is a non-cheese-lover's delight. It is bland, rich, buttery and melts beautifully.

Parmesan is one of the finest cheeses in the world, particularly the "Parmigiana-Reggiano," made in a special region of Italy at a particular time of year. It is eaten young in Italy, as a table cheese. Because it is at least two years old when exported here in "wheel" form, it is perfect for cooking only. Parmesan is pungent, nutty and aromatic, lending itself perfectly to all manner of food preparation, requiring only a food processor, strong blender or elbow grease to grate it.

Unfortunately, its name is not protected by law so any cheese can call itself "parmesan," even the pregrated cardboard-boxed cheese. Argentinian parmesan is another type, but is soapy and rather unpleasant and cannot compete with the American parmesan produced in Wisconsin, which is less expensive and quite acceptable substitute for Italian parmesan.

Swiss is, unfortunately, often imitiated, and anything with holes can be called Swiss. The pre-sliced imported Swiss found in most supermarkets is primarily from Finland and is nothing like the real thing. True Swiss cheese is from Switzerland and has a unique, nutty flavor all its own. American Swiss that is aged for 60 to 90 days is an adequate alternative when you cannot find the true Switzerland Swiss. Emmenthal is recognizable by its thin rind and large holes. This Switzerland cheese is a delicatessen sandwich favorite. It is young and mild. Gruyere is the most famous of all Switzerland cheeses. Actually, the French Gruyere is very similar to the Switzerland -- it is simply made on the other side of the mountains. Both types posses wrinkled, amber-colored rinds and are almost "holeless" except for an occasional break here and there. They are pungent, nutty and strong.

It is always preferable to store cheese in air-tight wrapping, in bulk, slicing or grating as you need it. CHEESE FINGERS IN BEER BATTER (10 to 12 Cheese Fingers) 1 pound gruyere cheese cut into fingers, about 3/4 inch by 3/4 inch by 2 inches Flour, for dredging Vegetable oil for frying, 2 to 3 inches deep BATTER: 1 1/2 cups flour 1 teaspoon salt teaspoon paprika 3/4 cup flat beer 1/2 cup water 2 egg whites, stiffly beaten

Make the batter at least 1 hour in advance. Sift the flour, salt and paprika into a bowl. Make a well in the center. Place the beer and water into the well and begin to whisk the dry ingredients into the liquid, drawing in the flour from the edges of the well to keep the batter smooth. Just before you are ready to fry the cheese fingers, stiffly beat the egg whites and gently fold them into the batter to lighten it. It should now be the consistency of heavy whipping cream. If it is too thick, thin with water.

Cut the cheese into finger lengths. Place enough flour in a bag to toss the cheese and cover it. (Once the cheese has been tossed in the flour the batter will adhere.)

Wave the cheese fingers "like a flag" to remove excess flour, then spear individually onto a skewer or fork and dip into the batter. Gently slide the cheese off its skewer into the hot oil (350 degrees), frying for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown and crisp.

Fry only 6 or 7 cheese sticks at a time so the temperature of the oil does not drop. Make sure you do not keep them in the oil too long or their insides will disappear and you will bite into an empty shell.