A Good Year for Cheese

The non-descript front door

Passing back through Wisconsin on the way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I barely spotted a small sign for Joe’s Cheese House in Marinette, a town of about 10,000 at the mouth of Green Bay. The shop was a few blocks off of the main drag, and the giant mouse on the outside of the warehouse-style building was my first clue that this wasn’t going to be like Cracker Barrel.

Wisconsin is obviously known for dairy, and I’ve learned that the state protects this key industry very well. For example, it is illegal to substitute margarine for butter at a restaurant, and margarine itself was illegal from 1925 to 1967. My neighbor in Virginia, a Wisconsin native, shared that folks back in the day used to make trips to neighboring states to get margarine, commonly called “Oleo runs.” She added that “folks are very friendly in my home state, but don’t cross the dairy industry.”

For the throngs of readers that are no doubt planning visits to Marinette, I’d highly recommend Joe’s for your next trip. It’s got a lot of variety, good prices, a knowledgeable and friendly owner in Carol Cubalchini, and an amazing selection of aged cheddars (some 20+ years old). Believe it or not, 20 year old cheddar fetches more than $200/pound in New York. Up here it’s only $45/pound, so I bought ten pounds or so (ok, I bought a very small piece).

IMG_4418People at other shops in Wisconsin had told me that it was hard to find even 15 year old cheddar, and yet Joe’s had an overflowing bin full of 18s and 20s. And if there was any doubt about the quality of this shop, it was dispelled by the walls…which were full of notes of praise from customers near and far.

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As for the cheese, I had a taste of the oldest stuff and it’s very flaky and seemed to have a lot of different flavors all at once. In one word, I’d describe it as complex. A restaurant owner in Madison described it this way: “it will knock your face off.” Thankfully, my face is still intact (good news and bad news, I suppose).

After a long conversation–probably a good 20 minutes–about cheese and headier topics, it was time to pay. Carol let me know that she didn’t take credit cards, but that she’d be happy to take a check…or she would bill me by mail later. (Did I just go back in time?). I wrote a check, shared my ID, and was told that she never bothers to match IDs with checks. I guess fraud isn’t popular in Marinette, or perhaps I really did time-travel–in which case the cheese is younger than I thought.

It’s funnyoopery to me to think that products like Velveeta have an expiration date despite being pasteurized and chock full of preservatives–and yet shops here are putting away cheddar for 20 years on purpose. If I store something for 20 years, it’s going to be because it was hidden in the fridge behind the margarine.

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