This is what I had for lunch today: crisp-tart slices of Pink Lady apples, hunks of Tillamook Extra Sharp Cheddar, and a handful of toasted almonds.
For a simple spread with no cooking involved, it made me unreasonably happy.
It had to be the cheese.
I haven't eaten Tillamook cheese in a long while, but one bite whisked me back to Oregon, and the occasional afternoon my family spent together in our brown Ford station wagon, packed bony-elbow-to-bony -knee like crabs in a pot, hurtling down the road away from the farm and towards the craggy, foggy, stunningly beautiful Oregon coast.
Until you've been a farm kid with dirt-packed fingernails and sneakers flecked with chicken poo, you can't imagine how exciting it was to get away from the drudgery of pinning wet clothes to the clothesline and hoeing the garden for a few hours. Especially when our destination was one of the most wonderful places on earth: the Tillamook Cheese Factory.
The Tillamook Cheese Factory was to us what Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory was to Charlie: pure magic.
It took forty-five minutes to get from our house to Tillamook, and we spent the time singing hymns and pinching each other stealthily as the wagon rolled by fields and barns and thick stretches of fir trees. By the time we arrived - rumpled, crumpled, and snarling - we couldn't wait to escape the Gran Torino and run across the vast parking lot towards the huge white factory.
Inside, the staff wore stiff white coats and hair nets. The ceilings were high and unfinished, with pipes that snaked from one room to the next. It smelled of milk and sugar and waffle cones. We made our way to the viewing area, a series of huge, glassed-in rooms where the cheese was made, and stared, mouths agape, never tiring of watching the milk gush down the chute, of the giant paddle arm churning it back and forth in huge stainless steel vat, of the huge bricks of curd rise out of the whey.
We bought bags of cheese curds, irregular lumps of salty, cheesy goodness that made squeaking sounds between our teeth. They were so good that we practically inhaled them, as children are wont to do. We ate string cheese, carefully pulling the strands apart to maximize its deliciousness. We stood in line at the ice cream counter and ordered our favorite flavors in huge waffle cones: white licorice, double chocolate brownie, peppermint.
An afternoon at the Tillamook Cheese Factory was an extravagance for us on every level.
In the years since I've moved to California, I haven't thought much about Tillamook cheese. I eat Red Hawk now, and Point Reyes Blue, and chevre from Bolinas, and Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, and any other obscure, small batch cheese I can get my hands on. My cheese addiction rages on, factory or no.
But just a couple of days ago, on impulse, I grabbed an 8-ounce block of the "Special Reserve" Extra Sharp Cheddar, and brought it home with me.
After all of this time, it still tastes like freedom and extravagance and fun. One taste of a childhood favorite, and the clock spins backwards. Amazing, isn't it?
Now if only I could find white licorice ice cream...
**Middle photo: proof that we truly were farm kids. One of sisters and one of my brothers, circa 1985, posing with goats whose names I can't remember.
FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE: Could this be the answer to my craving for white licorice ice cream? I'm imagining what it would taste like if it was made with the fennel seeds I saw at Le Sanctuaire... swoon. Only problem is: I don't have an ice cream maker. But a girl can dream.