No Cheese, Please
What happens when your kid hates the food that's built your career?
My 4-year-old hates cheese. He’ll happily tell you all about it, enthusiastically sharing his revulsion with anyone who’ll listen. “I don’t eat cheese! It’s soooooo gross!” is his go-to declaration. His preference is pretty unremarkable, considering toddlers aren’t exactly renowned for their omnivorism, but it cuts deep: For the past 17 years, I’ve made my living as a cheese expert.
Before I became a parent, I worked as a fromager at a Michelin-starred restaurant, as an ambassador for French goat cheese, and as a consultant for various cheese-focused brands. If it’s a cheese job, I’ve done it.
Since birthing my traitor to the cheese lifestyle, I’ve written three books and countless articles in magazines and newspapers about cheese, including a regular column in the Wall Street Journal called “Cheese Wisely.” It’s the only column about cheese in a national newspaper, but do you suppose my toddler cares? HE HATES CHEESE, OKAY?! IT’S DISGUSTING!
My identity is so wrapped up in cheese it might as well be sealed in red wax. From my earliest days, cheese was my favorite food, dutifully recorded in my baby book as such by my mom in 1976. It’s my professional brand, the way I make my living, and my creative outlet. It’s taken me from the hippie farms of Vermont to the lush grass of the German Alps, to an abuela’s kitchen in rural Mexico for a late afternoon alfresco cheesemaking sesh. It’s put me on television and given me the opportunity to speak to millions of people through my writing. I’ve eaten so much delicious cheese it’s obscene.
My identity is so wrapped up in cheese it might as well be sealed in red wax.
Before I was “the cheese lady” I was just a working-class girl from Long Island, waitressing while I figured out my “next step.” When I discovered the world of fine cheese, I became somebody who knew a lot about something few others did. It made me special and helped me stand out, granting me access to a burgeoning industry that defined me and that I, in a small way, have helped define.
But the hard truth is that despite being of my body and looking very much like me, my son is in many (most?) ways not like me at all. Our children are not our mirrors—they’re their own people—and their job is to make sure we (and the world) know it, often challenging and scorning the things we hold most dear in their quest to become fully realized human beings, totally and completely independent from us.
In retrospect: Cheese never stood a chance.
My son intrinsically understands that it bothers me when he rejects cheese. Even when I try to not react, my forehead tenses, or there’s a slight hesitation in my movements (children are masterful in their ability to observe the minutiae of an adult “tell”). That discomfort is surely part of why he hates cheese. When he says so, the most powerful person he knows squirms! That talk is thrilling, powerful, and too delicious to pass up (and obviously, to him, more delicious than any cheese).
Perhaps my son hates cheese because he doesn’t like the texture or the flavor (or both), or maybe he hates it because he enjoys the temporary power that comes with upending my overly complicated and enmeshed feelings about it. It doesn’t really matter why: Either way, it’s not personal. Little in parenting is, though most of the time it feels painfully, excruciatingly so.
The gift of parenting, as I’ve chosen to receive it, is the opportunity to look in the mirror and truly examine myself. It’s the uneasy value-add of losing control, of being exposed and vulnerable in all the ways we’ve fought so hard to inure us in the tough husk of adulthood. It’s the realization that the things we use to define our lives are tenuous, and perhaps not meaningless, but certainly they mean less. “Everything I thought was important changed after I became a parent,” goes the common refrain. The priorities of our lives shift when we become parents, and what was sacred, adored, and so valued by us before changes, too.
Parenting forces us to put our own likes, desires, and histories aside in the intense work of helping a little human navigate life. It’s shadow labor, rarely acknowledged and only compensated after years of output. In other words: it’s humbling AF.
But it can also be hopeful: My son may fight with all his might to be different than me, but if I do my job right, he’ll grow to embrace the values I hold dear, and even to expand on those values in ways I couldn’t imagine, because I’m not him, and he’s not me. (And let’s face it, he’s probably better than me, in innumerable ways.)
I glimpsed the future last week during one of his anti-cheese screeds, in which he offered a balm for my ego, as only a toddler can: “Cheese is disgusting,” he taunted. “Maybe I’ll like it when I’m 10.”
Maybe he will, and maybe he won’t. But either way, I’ll be ok.
Tia Keenan is a New York City-based writer, cook, and cheese specialist.
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