My first brush with the infamous cheese that rivals probably only that sliced stuff in a cello-wrap in popularity was an experience as non-descript as could be. It was there. Other people used it. Why shouldn't I? Perhaps it was a rite of passage at the time. Hey, I can use a condiment and I haven't spilled it all over myself. That yellow stuff in plastic wrap, after all, is neatly portioned and packaged so that it is perfect to slide between two pieces of Wonder bread, sans crust, and tuck into a Baggie, but you can't sprinkle it on a mound of spaghetti. Alas, that familiar green canister! It rattles a bit when pulled from the refrigerator and sits on the table, stoic and unrivaled by any challengers who would dare to enter the arena of a competitor that has gone so long without a worthy contender? It is accepted. It is the leaky showerhead it does the job when nothing else is available and not worth the trouble of looking for something better. It is called upon not for a matter of want, but more for a matter of need. Out of necessity that "shaky cheese", "sprinkle stuff", "canned powder" is called out to do its duty, more its dusting, on a limp bowl of noodles. It does not add much, more a token of trying to breath life into the lifeless. It falls like dust off the worktable of Bob Villa and his hand sander after filming eleven episodes on refinishing your front door. This marvel of convenience comes so handily on a shelf sandwiched between air fresheners and fruit flavored gelatin dessert no trip to the cooler is necessary. It settles in some establishments in glass shaker jars with a stainless steel lid with 8 or so holes. It waits to fulfill it dusting requirements and returns to sleep, like the genie and his ten-thousand year slumber upon a vinyl red and white checkered tablecloth, gently sticky from the last patron.
Parmigiano by Pamela Sheldon Johns (Ten Speed Press) is all about complexity in flavor going beyond the pale for great taste. No dusty cheese here. It has nothing in common with any cheese product that comes in a foil-lined can. Like her Pizza Napoletana, we are whisked through Italy on a 20-page informative, not cutesy, tour that sheds light on the Zona Tipica and judiciary that dictates the ingredients, aging, hemp and cheesecloth casing and handling even before we get to the expansive collection of recipes. She tells us of the thousand-dollar and up price tag for one of the majestic Parmigiano wheels. Her Parmigiano is rich with vignettes on Thomas Jefferson's import of Parmigiano and the cheese trade with France in 1780. Johns tiptoes back to the 11th century monks' cheese curd and long jumps us to the trattoria that makes up some 50 highly respectable recipes. Aghast I was to flip through and not spot Alfredo you see, I thought Alfredo defined Parmigiano and vice versa. Johns does her magic by giving us the traditional staples we want and offering some great goodies that we need. We just don't know it. Yet. Raddichio Caesar is real, real good. Apple-onion tart is way more than I expected in a book on cheese. The Garlic and Parmigiano mashed potatoes plays with the trend of flavored mashers without going overboard. And for pasta, the White-White-White stole the show. The 'whites' is a profoundly simple pasta dish that steals the spotlight from any ol' Alfredo and does so by incorporating the namesake cheese without even coming close to a goopy mess that often goes along with that macaroni dish that comes in a box. You see, the trivial "parmesan", which comes in that funny canister, is not the same cheese that Johns brings to our table. Grilled Eggplant Parmigiano, Biscotti and Corn, Red Pepper muffins and Caramelized Pears have nothing to do with "shaky cheese", but you knew that.