Can I Afford Good Cheese?

If you can afford cheese, then HELL YES, you can afford good cheese. I say this as someone who literally can’t afford new shoes even though mine have holes in them. If you hear squishing sounds when I walk, that’s because mop water has saturated my socks. Still, I don’t have to set aside some kind of cheese savings account so I can one day splurge on a bite of Roquefort. Cheese is expensive, yes, but if you can afford the cheap stuff, which isn’t actually cheap, then you can afford the fancy, delicious stuff. In fact, if you do it right, it’s a bargain. Consider this:

  1. The best cheeses do indeed cost much more per pound than store-brand processed cheese. But they’re also typically very powerful cheeses, so you may not need very much. A cheesemonger can cut you a very small wedge of something extraordinary for the same price as that big hunk of flavorless, overpriced cheese you were going to buy anyway. So you end up spending the same amount, receiving less cheese, but having a much better experience. Think of it this way: if you’re going to spend five bucks on cheese, you can buy a lot of forgettable cheese or you can buy a little bit of something that will be a memorable delight.
  2. Cheap cheese isn’t necessarily a good bargain. It’s often overpriced, actually. When you buy a big plastic package of shredded jack or cheddar, you’re paying a lot for the convenience. I’d guess most of the cost goes toward the packaging and the premium for having it pre-shredded. Then it molds a few days after you open it up, right? And moldy shredded cheese is done for, unlike a block of firm cheese with a bit of mold on the edge which can be cut off. But you could pay a little more per pound for good cheese from your cheesemonger and know that your money is going toward actual cheese instead of packaging—just delicious, exciting cheese—that you can grate or shred at home in a matter of a couple minutes. Plus, you can shred only what you need and the rest of the block will last longer in the fridge. Ultimately, you can get better cheese at a better value that way—when you’re not paying for a factory to shred and package your cheese for you.
  3. Let me go a step further: just don’t buy shredded cheese. Ever. It’s over-priced, molds quickly, and is always dried out. I went to the grocery and found a block of Kraft sharp cheddar next to a package of Kraft shredded sharp cheddar. I couldn’t believe they were listed at the same price! But then I noticed the small print. The bag of shredded cheese included an ounce less of cheese. For good measure, I looked at the ingredients: the shredded option included an ingredients list even longer than the block did, full as it was of cornstarch and chemical mold inhibitors. You have to pay for those. Don’t. Unless you suffer from a physical disability that makes shredding cheese by hand difficult, just shred it yourself. It takes two minutes, and another minute to clean the grater. Hell, just call me and I’ll come over and shred it for you. (But you’ll have to feed me.)
  4. If you’re looking for an assortment of cheese for a cheese plate, buying big hunks of pre-packaged stuff is going to waste money and precious (or even not-so-precious) cheese! Buy smaller wedges of several amazing cheeses from your monger and you’ll have better cheese and less waste at a comparable price.
  5. As with wine and cars and so many products, it’s entirely possible to buy something of a high quality for a middling price. Your monger can sell you something amazing for $36/lb, but probably also has something just as amazing for $18/lb. Remember when you figured out that there’s an Australian wine you like that’s cheap and also really good? Same thing with cheese. Let a monger help you find something that you love but that’s also comfortably within your budget. The difference in taste between that and a cheap block of cheese from the grocery will be great, but the difference in price may be quite minimal.
  6. Don’t be overwhelmed by the per-pound price. You’re probably not buying a whole pound, right? If all you need is a quarter pound, check this out: the price difference between a quarter pound of a $30/lb cheese vs a $20/lb cheese is only $2.50. That’s not nothing, but if you want the fancy $30/lb cheese, that extra $2.50 is probably not going to bankrupt you. I can’t tell you how many customers in my shop look at the high price of our amazing salumi products and say, “Damn, is it made of diamonds? I can’t afford to buy food at $50/lb!” I totally get that, believe me. I’m a big fan of making entire meals for under three bucks, and no stranger to the fast food dollar menu. But in reality, what happens is customers buy a tenth of a pound because such strong flavors are best savored with just a few bites, and paper-thin slices mean that you might get twenty slices in that little 1/10th of a pound. The five-dollar price they pay at the register is well worth it. I certainly haven’t heard any complaints, but we have plenty of folks coming back for more. We pay five bucks for a good beer. Five bucks for great, memorable food shouldn’t be such a shock.
  7. Consider where your money is going. Is it supporting a corporation and corporate distributors, with very little of it paying the wages of local employees or food producers? Or is it directly supporting a small, local business and its local employees and artisan food-makers? Are staff at the store well-paid, or are the low prices made possible by extremely low wages? Is the low price of the cheese a reflection of cheap, inhumane, unsustainable factory farming techniques and underpaid farmers? Or is the cheese made by principled farmers and artisan cheese-makers using sustainable practices and healthy, humanely raised animals?
  8. Do the math. I took a trip to the grocery and found that a half-pound block of store-brand sharp cheddar (store brand—not even Kraft or Sargento) cost $2.50. Wow, that’s great, right?! An organic sharp white cheddar cost $4 for slightly less cheese (6 oz, packaged to look like the 8 oz blocks). If all you need for a dish you’re making is cheap processed cheddar, either of those are a good deal, I think, but I wouldn’t bother snacking on them. In contrast, I can sell you 6 oz of an amazing Hook’s 4 Year cheddar for less than $7. Yes, that’s a big difference in price. You could buy a whole pound of the store-brand cheddar for less than that, and it’s almost $3 more than the organic white cheddar at the grocery. If I were making a ho-hum mac and cheese for myself on a Tuesday night budget, I might very well go for the cheap stuff. But if I wanted to make an especially flavorful dish or if I wanted to snack on the cheese, I’d simply spend the extra three bucks to enjoy something special—something made by artisans and aged to perfection rather than hustled out of the factory as soon as possible. And if you think about it, three bucks is a small price to significantly upgrade your cheese. If you wanted to upgrade your wine, you might go from a ten-dollar bottle to a twenty-dollar bottle or a thirty-dollar bottle. There’s no shame in buying the less expensive option, and sometimes that may be the best choice, but you shouldn’t feel like it’s a great splurge to upgrade your cheese. It’s three bucks.
  9. Good cheeses are likely more nutrient-dense and easier to digest. Aged cheeses have already done a lot of the digestive work for you. They’ve already converted lactose to lactic acid, for example, which is good news for the lactose intolerant. And cheese made from the milk of grass-fed animals is much more nutritious than that produced at factory feedlots where animals are fed only grain. You can see the difference in color and can certainly taste it. Most quality creameries use milk that is either labeled as organic or made using organic practices (many farmers don’t want to pay for the certification even if they’re following organic practices). I’d argue that the price of cheese often reflects the nutrition provided therein. Good, real cheese is full of probiotics and micronutrients, and its proteins and sugars are easier to digest than those in quickly and poorly made factory cheeses.

I know very well that we can’t all afford the foods we want. But I’d argue in the case of cheese that if we can afford cheap cheese with little nutritional value, we may be quite wise to spring for buying less of a high-quality cheese with more nutritional value and more flavor.

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