It’s more than just cheese

April 26th, 2018  |  Published in Uncategorized, What we savor

So you eat melted cheese on bread?

I remember my 2ndgrade class looking at me with confusion and slight disgust when our teacher, Mrs. Lopez, asked what our favorite foods were. In a panic, I began to describe the process as intricately as I could.

No, no, no you guys don’t get it. There are several steps to getting the right consistency.

Just as I was about to detail how to cut the cheese so that it melts properly, Mrs. Lopez cut me off and moved to the next student. Slightly embarrassed, but more frustrated than anything, I felt as if I failed my dad, the best Cheese maker in my family. Cheese is more complex than it sounds, it has many ingredients that include eggs, water and flour.

I was born to an African man raised the Virginia and a Haitian woman who immigrated to Spring Valley, a small town 30 minutes outside of New York City. My house was the epitome of a melting pot – southern charm, Caribbean culture, African principles and New York’s modernity. All of which was exemplified in food. 

Image of the Powell, Leveille, Stephens family.
Photo by: Angela Ramsey.Whether it was Haitian food, Moroccan food or soul food, there was always something cooking in my house. We always ate together. Every morning, my mother cooked heaping amounts of cornmeal, Haitian-style, cornmeal with mixed vegetables. Knowing how much my sister and I disliked vegetables, she’d often fib and yell up the stairs that our oatmeal was ready. We would come flying down the stairs in time to smell the tainted aroma of cornmeal and vegetables, with steam billowing above the bowls on the table.

After she passed in 2003, things were bound to change, or so we thought. My father would reign over breakfast, though we had never seen him cook. In fact, he only made appearances in the kitchen to eat someone else’s food. During the weekdays, Eggo waffles or Pop tarts were his meal of choice for us, and if we were lucky we occasionally got toast. But on Saturdays things were different. That  was Cheese day.

My father had learned the recipe from my grandmother while he was young – but now his version of Cheese surpasses  hers. His ability to cook shocked us all, but he liked my mother’s cooking so much, he forgot about his own abilities.

Cheese is a not hard dish to explain. It’s essentially  just cheese on a biscuit. It’s how you make it that counts, because what you want is a fluffy cheese dish coupled with a freshly baked buttery pastry and  topped with sautéed bacon.

My father would luxuriate in the kitchen on a Saturday morning, playing 70s R&B while he cooked. If I woke up to early I could witness him dancing, another strange sight, and performing a tune by Aretha Franklin while he fried the bacon.

The ingredients list for Cheese is short, but none of ingredients are replaceable. You need extra sharp yellow cheddar cheese, 3 tbsp of all-purpose flour, 2 eggs, bacon (sausage works too) and Shop Rite buttermilk biscuits.

“Guys, they only had yellow sharp cheese, so I got the extra sharp white cheddar cheese,” said my sister, as my family spit out her disastrous attempt at Cheese. She was 15 at the time and felt “mature” enough to cook a meal for the family, but that was the first time someone changed the recipe and the last time she made it.

My heart used to skip a beat at the grocery store, watching my father nonchalantly gather the ingredients to put in the cart. It was a privilege to go to the store with him; he usually went alone because we had the tendency to grab every snack on the shelf. It  felt even better to know we would have Cheese that weekend.

“Ashley, guess what we got,” I’d say with an eager smile, walking into our home.

“Cheese? Biscuits? Bacon?” She would say, getting giddier than I was.

“Stop standing and help me take these bags in,” my dad would say, trying to hide his own grin.

He was happy that we were happy. And once my baby brother was old enough to be off formula, he joined the excited Cheese train, too.

(From left to right) Aisha Powell, Nathan Powell (brother), Stephanie Alexis (half-sister) and Ashley Leveille (sister). Photo: Dan Powell.

would talk about our week, laugh at jokes and end fighting over the last biscuit.

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