Cheese Slang, pt 2: Portuguese and the Pastoral

“I want my illustrations for Dante to be like the faint markings of moisture in a divine cheese . . . Mysticism is cheese; Christ is cheese, better still, mountains of cheese!” — Salvador Dalí

Now that we’ve learned a few ways to demean and insult women with cheese slang, the next step in the course of nature is to broaden our affronts to races and nations. So what are some cheese-related racial slurs?

PORK AND CHEESE: DELICIOUS

First, there’s “pork and cheese,” a pet name for the Portuguese that probably originated in the gas-choked trenches of the first World War. The phrase has nothing to do with what Portuguese soldiers ate; it’s just simple rhyming slang. Like “nanny goat” as a stand-in for “throat,” or “Winona Ryder” for “cider” — or just about every word in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake standing-in for three or four words from various languages:

This in fact, just to show you, is Caseous, the brutherscutch or puir tyron: a hole or two, the highstinks aforefelt and anygo prigging wurms. Cheesugh! you complain. And Hi Hi High must say you are not Hoa Hoa Hoally in the wrong!

. . . which is when puns and rhyming slang get out of hand. (Worse than Aristotle? Maybe not.)

Apparently, “pork and cheese” was most freely used by the New Zealand soldiery. Who could have guessed — the Kiwis?! of all people —

I’m not sure if “pork and cheese” was originally offensive, intentionally or otherwise. We’d like to imagine it was all brotherly trench-talk, jocular word play. Wouldn’t we. Just a jumble of pork and cheese (Portuguese), Mary Anns (Americans), icky fish (English), baseball showers (Central Powers), and the rest of the gang. And we’d like to imagine that the whole World War was just a barroom jostle, punch-in-the-shoulder fun; that nationalism was a passing joke; and that human beings weren’t vile and godless monsters, on the whole. (“The Cruel Animal,” as Mark Twain defines us.)*

It turns out they are.

 

. . . and then the monsters made monster trucks.

. . . and then the monsters made monster trucks.

 

(I’ll mention that cheese might have sparked the first World War, if indirectly.)

 

Portuguese man . . . or imposter?

Portuguese man . . . or imposter?

But whatever its original import, I gather that “pork and cheese” is not considered “brotherly” or “fun” by now. Do not experiment with this phrase, teach it to children, or send it by company email. Urban Dictionary tells me that “If portuguse people are called pork and cheese they’ll kick ur fricken ass or pull out some pork and cheese and make u eat it.” (The first half does sound like a punishment, though the second’s a little reassuring.) Another entry claims the phrase is not derogatory on its own; however, the example provided is, “There are a lot of Pork ‘n’ Cheese living over here these days” — which doesn’t sound very neutral or anodyne to me. But I’m no expert. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Portuguese man in my life. Even if I had, he could have been an imposter.

 

I have read at least one Portuguese author: Fernando Pessoa. And what does Fernando Pessoa say? “I’m not a pessimist. I’m sad.” I’d like to quote more, but I’ll restrict my selections to footnotes to protect the uninterested.**

*

There is a Mexican restaurant near my home that serves a delicious heap of pork smothered in melted cheese. So people aren’t all bad.

The Heap has nothing to do with Portugal, I think.

AND THEN I SAW BEFORE ME A DONKEY GUARDING SHEEP . . .

The Portuguese do eat pork, like the rest of us, and they have and do make cheese — although, like the Spanish, they haven’t exported much until recently. There aren’t too many Portuguese cheeses — not the variety of France or Italy — just a modest number of well-crafted, small production affairs; and they’re usually sheep or goat’s milk, no doubt due to terrain. Two of the more famous varieties that I’ve seen in stores are São Jorge and Castelo Branco. The first is one of Portugal’s rare cow’s milk cheeses, made on the volcano-island São Jorge, of the Azores chain. It is lightly tangy and peppery, firm but crumbly. The second, Castelo Branco, is a sheep’s milk cheese from the mainland, which features the potent aroma of grass and raw poultry accompanying a piquant, buttery, nicely acidic flavor-crescendo. I can more enthusiastically recommend Castelo Branco, having eaten more of it myself. (And I’m the only one I can trust, so far.)

Also, there’s a Wisconsin-made variation of Castelo Branco made at Hidden Springs Creamery, called Ocooch Mountain. It’s a beefy, full, and earthy washed-rind cheese with a very long taste. As with Grayson, the ethics and aesthetics of American artisan cheesemaking are important for Ocooch Mountain. You’re buying and eating the idea, as much as anything. What is the idea? I don’t have a Hidden Springs mission statement on hand, but I can surmise.

The Creamery is a small sheep dairy of sustainable intentions in southwest Wisconsin’s Amish farm country. The sheep are East Friesian (a highly productive breed) and Lacaune (with richer milk, well-known as the udders behind France’s Roquefort); and all the milking and cheesemaking is done seasonally, by hand, with minimal modern technology. The owners even dug out their own natural cave for aging. “The idea,” then, is vitally tied to the poetry and symbolism of the ancient Pastoral Ideal — and if you’re not convinced: the herd is guarded by donkeys. I suppose the practice isn’t unusual (and if you want some tips on how to manage your own guard donkey, the Texas Department of Agriculture can help), so it’s very urbanly-ignorant of me to be shocked and amazed — but there must be something about donkeys and sheep living together in St. John’s Apocalypse, it’s just too shockingly idyllic.

Few things make me more eager to forgo petty city pleasures and take to the hills than the thought that I might, eventually, tend a herd of sheep guarded by a donkey. And I quote Don Quixote:

I should like, O Sancho, for us to become shepherds . . . . I shall buy some sheep, and all the other things needed for the pastoral exercise, and my name will be Shepherd Quixotiz and yours Shepherd Pancino, and we shall roam the mountains, the woods, and the meadows, singing here, lamenting there, drinking the liquid crystals of the fountains, or the limpid streams, or the rushing rivers. With a copious hand the oaks will give us their sweetest fruit; the hard cork trees, their trunks as seats; the willows, their shade; the roses, their fragrance; the broad meadows, carpets a thousand shades and colors; the clear, pure air, our breath; the moon and stars, our light in spite of night’s darkness; pleasure will give us our songs; joy, our weeping; Apollo, our verses; love, our conceits; and with these we shall make ourselves eternal and famous, not only in the present but in times to come.***

 

Love and sheep.

Love and sheep.

 

I’ll admit that American artisanal cheese is much too American and too post-60s to be associated with all the implications of the European Pastoral Ideal of yore — but significant essentials remain intact, especially for the well-to-do urban consumer looking in from outside, reading labels and web-pages. Someday I’ll have to think and write more about American pastoralism and the aesthetic of artisan cheese. Not today: do you see how I’ve babbled already? Also, before I do I’m sure I’ll have to check out a book from the library, something written by an English or American Studies professor, entitled “The Marrow of Life”: American Pastoralism from Henry Thoreau to Artisan Cheese — or something like that, with a special chapter on donkeys guarding sheep — because it’s unacceptable to have an opinion these days without muddling everything with “research” first — which is one reason I rarely have opinions.

Sheep’s milk cheese hasn’t quite caught on yet in the States. The index of the 2007 Atlas of American Cheese has three pages devoted to cow’s milk cheese; just over two pages for goat’s milk; and about a third of a page for sheep’s milk. Knowing, as we all do, what wonders have been accomplished with sheep’s milk all around the Mediterranean, I believe this void on our soil is a sordid crime. I have no explanation; I don’t believe there is any. I will blame whomever I must, I just want the problem fixed. Hopefully that fix is in the works. There’s always hope.****

APOLOGY, PROMISE, AND SOME SCRAPS

I have babbled too much. I can’t go on, for your sake and mine. I can’t and I won’t. If babble weren’t the purpose of The Blog (not only this blog, but blogs in general), then I might be ashamed.***** I’m not. The Cheese Slang posts will have to stretch into one more; and in that final post we’ll discuss the Dutch and learn about the Original Cheese Head. (Religiously, I believe it was Brett Favre; historically, there’s another explanation.)

BUT: So that trivia fanatics don’t leave disappointed at having learned only one bit of cheese slang, I’ll toss in a few quickies:

Cheese = money, as in “government cheese.” During the 80s, the US Government began distributing “Pasteurized Process American Cheese for Use in Domestic Programs” to welfare and food stamp recipients. By implication, then, “cheese” can mean money in general, handouts in general, charity for poor people, handouts for lazy people, a sign of poverty, and much, much more. “Who stole my cheese?” starts to sound urgent.

Cheese it! Not, as Urban Dictionary claims, first used in West Side Story. This phrase is as old as the 1870s, and typically employed within the longer sentence “Cheese it, the cops!”, or to tell somebody to be quiet. It’s thought by some to be connected with “stow it,” which would work in both those contexts — but what does stowing have to do with cheese? This nice commentary brings up the suggestion that “Cheese it!” derives from an older proverb, “After cheese comes nothing.” Everyone’s favorite. “Cheese it,” then, would mean to put a stop to whatever’s going on, to deliver the final words, strike the final blow, exit the final exit. Maybe blow the final trumpet, as Archangel Michael will do to put an end to time at last. No coincidence, then, that “Cheese it!” could be rhyming slang for “Jesus.”

LONG QUOTATION FOOTNOTES

* Of course the churlish Twain certainly had his own racial prejudices: “And so I find that we have descended and degenerated, from some far ancestor–some microscopic atom wandering at its pleasure between the mighty horizons of a drop of water perchance–insect by insect, animal by animal, reptile by reptile, down the long highway of smirchless innocence, till we have reached the bottom stage of development–namable as the Human Being. Below us–nothing. Nothing but the Frenchman.”

** Pessoa: “Should you ask me if I’m happy, I’ll answer that I’m not.” 

*** Compare to Pessoa: “I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me — this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we’re mean-hearted but because we don’t feel like unbuttoning our coat.”

**** Pessoa: “A tedium that includes the expectation of nothing but more tedium; a regret, right now, for the regret I’ll have tomorrow for having felt regret today — huge confusions with no point and no truth, huge confusions . . .”

***** Pessoa: “The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.”

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3 Responses to “Cheese Slang, pt 2: Portuguese and the Pastoral”


  1. 1 Adrienne Celt November 10, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    You think that monster trucks, and their accompanying rallies, are godless?

    Tell THAT to the rest of the American Midwest.

    I continue to be somewhat amazed by how many references there are to cheese being holy, an ideal to be attained. Who knew that Salvador Dali gave a damn, for instance?

    Also, I think we should start talking in Cockney rhyming slang.

  2. 2 Chip November 11, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Actually, Joyce’s title is “Finnegans Wake,” without an apostrophe. As Professor Michael Groden of the University of Western Ontario notes, “Because it doesn’t have an apostrophe, it can be [read as] ‘Finnegans, Wake!’—wake up, all you Finnegans.”

    In cockney slang, it’s “sin and cake.”

    A connection between cheese and wakefulness seems worth investigating.

    Or cheese and sleep. In fact I think someone in a Shakespeare play cries out, “Wake up, you cheese-sleep!”

  3. 3 Kent Larsen November 12, 2008 at 12:42 am

    FWIW, there is at least one more well-known Portuguese Cheese: Serra da Estrela.

    I’m not enough of a cheese monger to give it a fair description, but I can tell you that it is a soft white cheese (sheep or goat’s milk, I suppose).

    It’s really quite good, definitely a staple on the mainland.


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