“Existential Mozzarella”

Juanita Vero is part of the fourth generation on a dude ranch in Greenough, Montana. She says it’s like City Slickers meets Dirty Dancing meets The Horse Whisperer with A River Runs Through It and some Downton Abbey.

Juanita Vero and her brother are motivated by food growing up. Unpasteurized milk from the cows on their ranch, homemade bread, peanut butter and marmalade sandwiches. They love it all. Once, during a visit to their grandmother’s house in Colorado, they are introduced to a gourmet new food. A mysterious log of salty cheesy goodness. A visit to the Fred Myers years later brings enlightenment about this curiosity of the food world.

This episode of Tell Us Something was recorded in front of a live audience on March 29th, 2016, at The Wilma in Missoula, MT. 9 storytellers shared their story based on the theme “Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me?”.

Today’s podcast comes to us from Juanita Vero and is titled “Existential Mozzarella”. Thank you for listening.

Transcript : Existential Mozzarella

My brother and I are really motivated by food. We — my little brother — we grew up about an hour east of here on a ranch, and went to a little one-room schoolhouse down the road.  And our favorite class was lunch.[laughter]  And, this was in the seventies and so we had these bright orange Tupperware lunch boxes that have been sitting under our desks all morning long. And so at noon, we get to peel back that soft pliable plastic cover, and that waft, the special Tupperware stench, would just come up. And we loved it.

Probably didn’t help that in our lunch boxes was unpasteurized cow’s milk, not because our parents were righteous hippies or anything it’s just that, we had cows on the ranch and we drank, that’s what the milk was that we drank, and it was not pasteurized.

Also in our lunchboxes was last night’s dinner slapped between two pieces of homemade bread. Again, not  because Mom was a righteous “I’m going to make everything by hand,” it’s just, she made bread. We didn’t buy bread. We lived too far from town.

And occasionally we would get peanut butter and jelly on the sandwiches and those were special days. And, peanut butter and jelly was exciting except most of the time, peanut butter came with marmalade because we have to use up the marmalade. [laughter] And who, who eats peanut butter and marmalade? Vomit!  [laughter]

So my brother and I would, we would covet. And we would be very…just jealous of the other kids’ lunch boxes and these were tin lunchboxes with fantastic graphics of Star Wars and Dukes of Hazzard. And in those lunchboxes were Lunchables and Fruit Roll-Ups and Capri Suns and, and colorful candy. Stuff that we were never allowed.

My brother, though, he was a wheeler and dealer. And he was fantastic at, at trading and conniving. And, I on the other hand I took the sour grapes route. I said that, “only bad people ate that kinda stuff.” And this was during the Save the Whales campaign and Greenpeace was really out there you know, trying to prevent harp seal pups from getting clubbed and so in my mind I was like, “Only whalers drink Capri Sun and [laughter] and clubbers, seal clubbers are out there with their Lunchables and litter bugs drink pop.”

You know, that’s what I thought.  Bad trashy people would eat sugar cereals with store bought 2% milk. And. It’s funny, I said “trashy” but we lived in a double wide trailer on a ranch, so, I mean….

And when we came home from school, we weren’t allowed inside until dinner was ready. And, during the summer this ranch is a dude ranch, and so we served all of the choice cuts of beef to our guests. And during the off season, we would eat burger, liver, heart, tongue, occasionally, but it was good, it was good.

Mom makes amazing liver and onions and tongue. And then Dad would get an elk or a deer. Again, not because of some, like, “back to the land, I’m going to provide for my family” philosophy. It’s just we were tired of eating organ meat.

Mom hunted too, but she didn’t hunt so much, until, you know, after us kids came along.

And then we would have these food service cans of, of, of insipid vegetables, it was diced carrots and gray peas. And I’m sure the cans were lined with everything that you’re not supposed to line cans with now.

And then, and then we would have rice, and rice was a nod to my dad’s Filipino heritage .

And we would drown our entire dinner in soy sauce which our dad called “bug juice” and my little brother and I just reveled in asking, “Please pass the bug juice,” we were very excited about that.

About once a year we got to go visit our grandmother in Colorado and this meant that we get to ride on an airplane. And Frontier Airlines had a flight from Missoula to Denver and our grandmother lived in to Grand Junction. And airplanes are really exciting because you get to dress up and wear your good underwear and for, for me, I mean,  I could wear a dress or a skirt which I would inevitably tuck the back into my stockings when I would come out of  a public restroom. There’s someone else in here who does that too.

When we, um, but the best part about airplanes with food. We get salted peanuts and honey roasted salted peanuts and pop. And food would come in, our meals would come in little compartments or, er, uh, plates that were compartmentalized and would separate out all of the food types and my brother and I just loved that.

When we arrived to our grandmothers, there always was this kind of air of stress. Um, my grandmother was a very regal woman, and she was tall and kind of lockjawed. And had a long neck that looked like it had a couple extra vertebrae in it. [laughter]


She, she had an immaculate home. It was beautiful. Everything was pale blue, beige, you know, sage green. Children weren’t allowed on the furniture. We had to sit on the floor next to the furniture.  [laughter] Furniture was for adults.

We also knew that our mother was kinda stressed out. We were excited to be there but it was stressful. In part because we, we kind of knew, but didn’t really judge, that our grandmother didn’t like us. [laughter]

And this was because our mother had married our Filipino cowboy father [cheering] who really didn’t offer the family much materially.

Never mind the fact that our grandmother had run off with another woman’s husband, to Colorado, leaving our grandfather on the ranch to shack up with a housekeeper who was only 4 years older than our mother. Very exciting. [laughter]

But, we didn’t judge, again we’re children, we don’t really understand the affairs of adults. We were more concerned about what was for dinner.

And dinners were a really Grand Affair. We would have — candles would be perfectly laid, uh, lit, and and silverware would be going East and West and North and South around our plates. And there was like always a forest of glassware up in the Northeast quadrant. [laughter] And you had to use the right utensil and the correct hand for the correct piece of food to bring it to your mouth. And then you have to drink from the correct glass and you need to have the proper beverage in the correct glass. And we were really excited because we would get served wine in a sherry glass and we just felt so accomplished.

Nevermind the fact that when we weren’t eating we’d have to sit at the side, or, we’d have to sit our thumbs on the edge of the table to keep us from fidgeting. We had to be very still at the table.

Our grandmother’s husband would gallantly carve a Canada goose that he had shot, and he’d be standing at the head of the table carving away, and we would have wild rice which look nothing like rice at all. And we just knew without being told that it was forbidden to ask for the bug juice so we did not.

And, but we love the artichokes!  Artichokes that we could pick off the leaves and then dip them in Hollandaise sauce, and our grandmother would say “‘ollandaise”, as if the  the H did not exist. And, we would dip, and then scrape the flesh from the bottom of the our lower teeth and then very neatly place them on the discard plate, and had to keep perfect circles and stacked very neatly and  layered. And the best part is we don’t have to finish artichoke. We didn’t like the hearts. They were, like, thorny and weird looking and our mother love them. And so we could give the, our mother our artichoke hearts. We don’t have to clean our plate. That was the only time we don’t have to do that.

But before dinner were cocktail parties, and these were fabulous. Not only did we have our very own Shirley Temples with a couple maraschino cherries and cherry juice in, in,in the glass, but there was food! And incredible creations. My grandmother would spend hours crafting and constructing these creations. And they were, they were, like, all sorts of stinky cheeses and you  know, whimsically whittled vegetables and fruit and revolting patees, and crackers and toast points that were adorned with all sorts concoctions that represented the entire plant and animal kingdom on top of a tiny cracker.

And my brother and loved them, but the deal was that we could only sample an appetizer at once we had passed them to all the adults in the room, so my brother and I were on it. It was like, every 90 minutes adult was getting an appetizer plate in their face! So, 90 minutes? I meant 90 seconds. We were on it! On it!

And I just got the gong so I’m hurrying up here.

But our favorite, our favorite hors d’oeuvre was these kind of luminous they all, white, and they almost kind of look like Lincoln Logs. And there’s a very particular way that we could eat them and you have to peel them very carefully. Peel them lengthwise. And we were only allowed, with the loving glare of our mother, we knew that we were only allowed to take a section that was only the width of dental floss. And these were magnificent, magical things and just were so soft and they felt like embroidery threads and they had just this nutty vaguely nutty maybe salty flavor but it was mostly as the divine nothingness. And we’d put them on our tongue, and, my brother and I would watch each other very seriously and, and, because, God forbid the other one took a bigger string than, than, than a piece of dental floss. And this was the most kind of spiritual, you know, closest thing to the sacrament that my brother and I ever had.

Fast forward 10 years, we don’t see her grandmother for over a decade. You know, adult tensions, life gets in the way. We have this kind of vague falling out. I go off to hoity toity prep school that, in New England that my grandmother pays for, I’m not really swearing it because she doesn’t like us, but she’s paying for me to go. I’m not going to ask questions. I don’t really want to untangle that. I’m just going. My my brother, my brother goes to the US Army where he becomes a Black Hawk helicopter pilot and then I end up at a hippie liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. So it’s in Portland, so it’s in Portland Oregon where I’m at Fred Meyer’s, which is like Albertson’s, ShopKo kind of thing, and I’m getting my weekly college ration college student ration of Raman, ‘cause, you know, that’s what you do. And my favorite is Top Ramen because you can get five packages for a buck. And the best is the chicken, chicken sesame because the it, the sesame oil comes in this neat little packet. And I also like to add a raw egg the last 3o seconds of my ramen because that’s what Dad did.

So I’m scooting over to the dairy section to get my half dozen eggs and I’m standing next to the, this end cap. Catches my eye. It’s about  3 feet wide, 6 feet tall, and it’s just stocked with these glowing white Lincoln Logs.

And I’m staring at them. And it’s, it’s string cheese! It’s called string cheese.


I’ve never….  It’s 12 packs of string cheese for two dollars and 87 cents!


And I’m staring at it and it’s like, this shock and explosion of mental life montage kind of like is in my head and I’m thinking of my grandmother and and and the stress of of family, and responsibilities, and of course money and and how does it all fit in? And I’m like, “Is my grandmother a fraud? Is my, is my family a fraud? And then, obviously, next, am *I* a fraud?

Why didn’t anyone tell me? String cheese? $2.87?