Are cheese curds America's best kept secret?

By Nick Roumel
 

During a campaign stop in Pittsburgh in 1948, Harry S Truman was introduced to a local governmental official called a prothonotary, sort of a glorified clerk of court. Truman responded, “What the hell is a Prothonotary?”
 

In much the same way, cheese curds are glorified in Wisconsin, but not so well known outside the region. Is there a reason for that? Are cheese curds one of America’s best kept culinary secrets - or an acquired taste that The New York Times once likened to “balloons trying to neck?”
 
First, to paraphrase the ex-president, “Just what the hell is a cheese curd?”
 
Let me see if I have this straight. Start with fresh milk, and make it sour with rennet, lemon juice, vinegar, or some other acid. After draining off the liquid, you are left with curdled solid masses. Those are the cheese curds. (Any remaining liquid is “whey,” but you Little Miss Muffet fans already knew that.)
 
Perhaps the reason cheese curds remain a regional specialty is their short life span. They are best eaten within hours of production, while their springy texture is still fresh enough to “squeak” against the teeth. (Thus the necking balloons.)
 
If one went a step further and pressed those curds into shape and aged them, they’d be traditional cheese. But Wisconsinites love their squeaky cheese curds. They’ll eat them fresh, flavored with herbs or spices, or skewered on kabobs with sausage or salami. Or, as they do here at Andy’s in Wisconsin Rapids, they’ll fry them up and serve them with ranch dressing.
 
Try not to think about the fact that you are eating fat, fried in fat, and dipped into fat. That’s what the oversized Green Bay Packers jersey is for. Just savor the gooey meltiness. 
And if you want an equally healthy presentation, just take a tip from our Canadian friends, and whip up a poutine. Approximately half of Quebec is credited with combining cheese curds with fried potatoes; the name is said to come from one Fernand Lachance, who exclaimed "ça va faire une maudite poutine" ("It will make a damn mess") when asked to put a handful of curds on some french fries. Brown gravy was added later to keep this mess warm; now you can find poutine in any diner or even fast food restaurant throughout Canada.
 
Whether you prefer the hot mess of poutine, or the squeak of the fresh curd, now you know what to respond if Harry Truman asks you about cheese curds.
 
Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, and has taught Greek cooking classes.
 

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