The Privilege of Cheese by Elisabet Velasquez
In this introspective personal essay, Elisabet Velasquez uses cheese as a way to discuss how our connections to food can be directly tied to socioeconomics, government policy, and history. In clear and witty prose, Elisabet delves into difficult topics and reminds us that food is an important indicator of both our cultural and political existence.
Elisabet Velasquez is a Boricua writer from Brooklyn, now living in Jersey City. She is known for her poems which have been featured on NBC, Telemundo, Latina Magazine, Refinery 29 and more. She is a Poets House Fellow, Dodge Poetry Fellow and New Jersey Council for the Arts Fellow. Her debut young adult novel in verse When We Make It received the Kirkus best YA Fiction Award, YALSA Best fiction for Young Adults award. It went on to be a 2021 Goodreads Readers Choice Nominee, a 2022 Gotham Prize Finalist, and was named a New York Times Young Adult Books To Watch For. When she is not writing she is living the life she hopes to write about.
RECIPE POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs & Rice Writing Prompt: (A Revision Prompt!) Elisabet's piece talks about food in relation to time and place in history. Pull out a piece you've already written about a specific moment in your life. Now consider the time and history surrounding the moment you've written about. This may require some research. How does this new knowledge support, change, clarify, or complicate your work? How can time and place in history impact the piece?
The Privilege Of Cheese
By Elisabet Velasquez
On our way home from the park, my seven year old son Adrian, skips ahead of me. He strolls with a musicality about him that depending on my mood could be Fania, could be Coltrane. Today he’s on shuffle. I attempt to keep pace as he switches tempo straight into an artisan cheese shop. Shit. The truth is that I would have never of my own volition walked into an artisan cheese shop. Cheese & I have a strange relationship. It all started with government cheese.
I grew up below the poverty line in Bushwick, Brooklyn in the 90’s during the war on drugs. Like my family, many Puerto Ricans settled in Bushwick, Brooklyn after the great migration of the 50’s and 60’s, a result of “Operation Bootstrap” in Puerto Rico. Operation Bootstrap was a move to improve the poor economic conditions in Puerto Rico by moving away from local agriculture and moving towards industrialization. The Puerto Rican government did this by incentivizing American Corporations to set up shop in Puerto Rico for a hefty tax break. This move away from agriculture meant farmers and their families were displaced adding to the already large numbers of unemployed Puerto Ricans on the Island. Government officials blamed the island's increase in poverty and unemployment on overpopulation - and began to encourage Puerto Ricans to move to The United States. A few generations later and I was born in Brooklyn.
My mother was lucky enough to find work as a seamstress but that wasn’t enough to feed a family of four. To add insult to injury, discrimination against Puerto Ricans in NYC was widespread, even going so far as to have an entire media campaign that dubbed the new migrants to the city the Puerto Rican problem. Sounds kinda badass if you ignore what that moniker actually meant for Puerto Ricans. Ask Steven Spielberg. You may remember his colorful depiction of Puerto Ricans in The West Side Story.
With very little job prospects and a whole lot of hunger our family were forced to do what many Puerto Rican families did who were casualties of faulty economic policies, we relied on government assistance and the community bodega for our survival.
There was a kind of camaraderie that happened in our community bodega, an unspoken pact to keep each other alive in a world that otherwise catered to our deaths. The bodeguero needed to make money to stay in business and mami needed to feed four kids in the middle of a month’s dry-spell. The relationship was a no-brainer. Of course, trust was a huge part of this relationship, the bodeguero needed to trust mami would pay her tab at the beginning of the month and mami needed to trust the bodeguero wouldn’t suddenly change his borrowing policy in the middle of one of our hunger tantrums.
The bodega wasn’t just a place to borrow food from, we also traded in our food stamps for cash to buy school clothes and our bus fare for quarters to throw in the church-plate so we wouldn’t get judged by the offering collector. Trust me, showing up to church with empty stomachs was always better than showing up to church with empty pockets.
The bodega was a one-stop trade shop where everything could be traded except one thing: W.I.C. Vouchers. W.I.C. is an acronym for Women Children & Infants, a government program that provides low-income pregnant women with monthly vouchers that they can trade in the store for food. These vouchers did not work with the chinese food, cuchifrito, taco-bell — liberty that cash afforded or the slight dignity that even the “restricted to supermarkets” food stamps gave us to choose our own food.
W.I.C. vouchers were shaped and designed like an actual check, complete with a payee line and were not valid unless endorsed. You heard that right, you had to sign to check out your food complete with an ID to make sure it was indeed you and not some peanut-butter thieving imposter. Instead of a specific dollar amount, you would find the type of food, the food’s allotted measurement and even the name brand of food allowed & there was no flexibility around this. The bodeguero could risk losing his license if you were caught swiping the Juicy-Juice for some 7-up. W.I.C. was militant & final. W.I.C. decided what you ate and how much of it too.
2 dozen eggs 1 gallon Non-Fat or 1% LowFat Milk 1 16 Ounce WIC Bread/Tortillas/Brown Rice 3 11.5-12 Ounce Concentrate WIC Juice 1 16 ounce government Cheese
On the good days of the month, we don’t need the cheese. We are able to afford Kraft singles like the good ol’ American family that we longed to be. Because America spells cheese K-R-A-F-T. On the bad days of the month. Government cheese is all we had. A 5lb brick of neon orange goodness. Grilled Government cheese. Mac & Government Cheese, Goverment cheese and beef empanadas. Government cheese in all of its cardboard and cellophane wrapped glory is the closest we ever got to a bar of gold.
“Mira No Toques!”
I shout a warning to my son who is currently being hypnotized by a huge round of cheese on a table. Get away from that. Kids these days. This kid doesn't know how lucky he has it. Just walking up to cheese like that. No long cheese line to wait on. You know for a long time, I didn’t even know cheese came in any other shape but rectangle. I keep my eyes on Adrian so that the cheese guru employees know I am only here to retrieve my son. Adrian however decides that since he is in a cheese shop he wants cheese.
I know this because he yells loudly, “Mami, I want cheese!”
This proclamation prompts the cheese patrol to assemble behind a glass deli counter like they were the Radio City Mozzarella Rockets or something. “What kind of cheese would you like to try?” The cheese patrol smile in unison and point to the wedges and wheels of cheese that crowd the glass counter in front of me. I run a quick scan for the familiar cheeses of my childhood. I am clearly out of my element in the cheese shop. Anxiety begins to loom over me as I realize I can’t pronounce anything in the glass. Morbier, Gruyere, French Raclette, Camembert - bert, bear? I don’t know what any of them are but they all sound like cheese I can’t afford. Cheese was the first food I began to equate value with. Rich people didn’t wait in line to be handed cheese. Rich people didn’t have to cash in a check that told them what they could and couldn’t eat. They had the privilege of choice.
I press my finger to my chin, pretending to be in deep thought. I refuse to let the cheese patrol know that I’m a cheese newbie, but where’s the regular degular cheddar cheese? Hell, I’d even settle for the Swiss to spare me the shame I was feeling. But where was the shame coming from?
I was five years old the first time mom got called a welfare queen. She was cashing a W.I.C. Voucher at the bodega. It wouldn’t be the last time my family would be stereotyped as leeches of the system. Ronald Reagan’s presidency made sure of it. In order to rally support for the reform of the welfare program, Reagan painted women, particularly women of color, as lazy social parasites frauding the system. At five years old, I had no idea what a Welfare Queen was. Being any kind of Queen sounded important, regal. Except one look at Mami’s face told me this was the kind of royalty you didn’t wanna be.
I wasn’t the only one who equated cheese with money. In the 1970s the government introduced a program that subsidized the dairy industry, a response to a national shortage of dairy products due to inflation. That’s right, folks. America’s farmers were welfare queens. & they weren’t letting go of that government money any time soon. They pumped those cows high and dry, dairy farmers soon were producing milk faster than any Got Milk commercial could be filmed. In addition to providing a subsidy to produce dairy, the government also bought any excess milk the farmers couldn’t sell and turned it into powdered milk butter and processed cheese. Soon, warehouses across America were stockpiled wall to ceiling with cheese. There was so much cheese just sitting there molding away that A USDA official suggested throwing all the cheese into the ocean. Surely there was a better solution. Well, if Regean forgot that millions of Americans, like my family, relied on government assistance for food, the public certainly reminded him and thus government cheese was born. To save face, the government began to distribute the stockpiled cheese to the poor and elderly across the nation. I was seven years old when the government cheese program ended in 1990.
In 2019, my seven year old son and I stand inside of an artisan cheese shop. I can’t help but to think of my mother and all of America’s welfare queens. How they made the best of what they were given even when what they were given was leftover government cheese. I think of Puerto Ricans migrating and surviving here amidst the scarcest of opportunities. I think of the irony of me standing in front of a glass counter filled with brie, burrata, Manchego, gorgonzola, confronted with a newfound privilege of choice my mother never had but that I want my son to inherit.
What kind of cheese would you like to try? I am asked by the cheese patrol once more.
I take a deep breath and ask my son to choose for us.
Classic Grilled Cheese Sandwich
2 slices white bread 2 KRAFT Singles or other sliced cheese of your choice 2 tsp. butter or margarine, softened
1. Fill bread slices with Singles/sliced cheese.
2. Spread outside of sandwich with butter.
3. Cook in skillet over medium heat 3 min. on each side or until cheese is melted and sandwich is golden brown on both sides.