The worst part of this week’s disturbing stories about grated Parmesan cheese containing wood pulp or cellulose is how many news outlets have included stock photos of what appears to be Parmigiano-Reggiano in their stories. Let’s please not confuse domestic grated Parmesan with the genuine article. One is a salty cheese-flavored substance that comes in cans or tubs or pouches or the refrigerated case at Target. The other is one of the greatest cheeses in the world.
This is sometimes overlooked, even by foodies. When I used to sell cheese for a living, friends often asked me to name some of my favorites. In addition to Humboldt Fog and Hudson Valley Camembert and Berkswell and various Robiolas and all the other imported and artisanal delicacies, I would always mention Reggiano.
Friends would scoff — Parmesan? The stuff from the green can? But I wasn’t wrong.
Real Reggiano comes in 75-pound wheels, aged at least a year, from a specific geographic region of Emilia-Romagna. (Read the full specifications here.) It gets cut with a special set of knives, which are virtually impossible for a novice to master. And it is capable of things far grander than being sprinkled on spaghetti. Juliet Harbutt, like others, uses the term “edible gold” when describing Reggiano. Famed cheesemonger Steven Jenkins refers to it in his Cheese Primer as “miraculous” and “marvelous” and “superb,” calling it “Il formaggio migliore nel mondo — the world’s greatest cheese.”
(And what of the domestic grated stuff? “Most American ‘Parmesan,’ ” Jenkins wrote in 1996, “tastes like sawdust.” Wise man.)
Staggering around with one of those slightly slick and intoxicatingly aromatic wheels feels almost like transporting a small child, something so precious and valuable it makes your heart skip. And cracking open the rind and staring at the craggy golden interior is about as close to a religious feeling as I can imagine, at least in a supermarket setting. How did we imperfect humans collaborate with a bunch of cows and some grass to produce something so magical, so mysterious, so impossible to describe? How can ordinary milk transform itself into something Jenkins says “will melt in your mouth, lozenge-like, creating a thick, delicious, piquant paste?” Could a metaphysical accident really produce something like that, something that tastes as if it’s been touched by the divine?
There is a danger in all this, of course: a flirtation with snobbery. I’m no snob. Other cheese products can still be tasty, just like grilled “American” cheese slices or Cheetos are tasty. But Cheeto dust does not appear to be touched by the divine, and you’d never exactly worry about dropping a green can of salty cheese-like powder. Maybe this week’s news can be a reminder to experiment with the real cheese instead of its convenient imitation.
Sure, there are financial impediments to buying a hunk of Reggiano every week. It isn’t cheap. Grated American Parmesan often is. I can’t tell you what to enjoy, and I can’t tell you that upgrading from pre-grated “Parmesan” to a holy hunk of un-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano is worth the investment. (Although, if you can occasionally splurge, I don’t think you’ll regret it. I can’t remember ever hearing someone complain “I paid $3 too much for this entirely delicious lick of heaven.”)
I can say, though, that we shouldn’t confuse these two things, just like we wouldn’t conflate Natty Light with Pliny the Elder, or 5-year-old kids falling on top of soccer balls with the Champions League final, or internet #LongForm practitioners with John McPhee. One of these foods is among the most extraordinary accomplishments of humanity, as we progressed from subsistence to civilization. The other is something that can be mixed with wood pulp without anyone noticing.
So if you do nothing else, don’t put stock images of Reggiano in your stories about a food disgrace.
A new discovery about parmesan cheese is not going to make a lot of people happy https://t.co/3u6NDZeG0Y
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) February 17, 2016
— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) February 18, 2016
Your shredded parmesan might actually be shredded wood pulphttps://t.co/85BGJTo8EW
— Eater (@Eater) February 17, 2016
— PCMag (@PCMag) February 18, 2016
— Fox News (@FoxNews) February 17, 2016
— National Post (@nationalpost) February 16, 2016