Food & Drink

Say cheese! Celebrating National Cheese Day 2024

National Cheese Day is celebrated every June 4

Different types of cheese.
Getty Images

From the humble grilled cheese sandwich to the fancy charcuterie board, cheese has the power to make almost every meal better. Today, with thousands of cheese varieties available -- including some delicious dairy-free options -- there's never been a better time to be a cheese lover.

If you need an excuse to celebrate your love of cheese, then National Cheese Day -- celebrated every June 4 -- is the day for you. First established in 1914 in Monroe, Wisconsin, this holiday began as a way to encourage tourism featuring everyone's favorite dairy product. Today, this festival lasts an entire weekend and includes over a hundred thousand visitors -- not to mention the upcoming world's biggest polka dance, multiple parades and beloved Emmental mascot Wedgie.

The history of cheese

Today, cheese is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. But who should get the credit for the invention of this delicious dairy product? The truth is that there are still many unanswered questions about the origins of cheese.

According to The University of Tennessee, the earliest found records describing the cheesemaking process are written on proto-cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 4,000 BCE which were found in southern Mesopotamia. But cheese was likely enjoyed thousands of years earlier in various regions around the world.

Some have argued, based on milk-fat residue present on ancient pots found in western Anatolia, that cheese was enjoyed as early as 7,000 BCE. However, it is also very possible that these pots were simply used to store milk, not cheese.

Other early evidence of cheesemaking, according to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, includes the depiction of cheese in ancient Egyptian tomb murals, references to cheese in ancient Greek mythology and Neolithic ceramic sieves presumably used to separate curds from whey during the cheesemaking process. Early cheeses might have been produced by combining acidic fruit juice and milk or storing milk in containers made from animal stomachs. Both practices would cause the milk to curdle, creating curds and whey.

According to the BBC, around 2018, the cheese community was rocked by the discovery of what is now considered to be the world's oldest cheese. The "solidified whitish mass," found in broken jars in an Ancient Egyptian tomb, was identified as cheese made from sheep and goat's milk. Its age -- 3,200 years old -- makes it the oldest-known example of cheese. No word yet on how it tasted, though.

How to celebrate National Cheese Day

Since taste-testing ancient cheeses probably isn't an option for most people, what's the best way to enjoy National Cheese Day? One option might be hosting a cheese-themed potluck where each guest is invited to bring a unique recipe featuring cheese. The options are limitless: salty baked feta, gooey macaroni and cheese, halloumi fries and strawberry cheesecake might be a few of the diverse dishes gracing your table.

If your friends aren't into cooking, another fun way to celebrate National Cheese Day is by hosting a fondue party. While the classic cheese used in fondue is Gruyere, you can also melt in other Swiss cheeses or different additions depending on your preferences. For dessert, keep the cheesy goodness going with a refreshing cream cheese fruit dip. And don't forget the time-honored tradition of creating a punishment for anyone who loses their bread in the fondue: kissing the person to their right, completing a silly dare or doing the dishes are all fitting penalties.

Types of cheese and perfect pairings

Around the world, thousands of cheese varieties are enjoyed in countless ways. It would be impossible to list all of the cheese dishes that are eaten in different cuisines, but here are just a few well-known cheese types.

Paneer or panir: Paneer, usually made from buffalo or cow milk, is a soft but dense cheese that is popular in South Asia and around the world. A filling vegetarian source of protein, it's the star of savory dishes like palak paneer and mattar paneer. It can also be enjoyed in sweets such as chamcham and sandesh.

Brie and camembert: These are two distinct types of cheeses which both have soft, runny bodies contained within rinds. Thanks to their oozy texture -- perfect for spreading on crackers -- brie and camembert are often central elements of charcuterie boards. They can also be baked, seasoned and served as appetizers.

Ricotta: Much like its down-to-earth cousin, cottage cheese, ricotta can be spread over crusty bread and topped with fresh vegetables for a savory, creamy snack. Ricotta is also a central ingredient in Italian dishes such as lasagna and cannoli.

Feta: Whether you're tossing it into a salad, sprinkling it on top of shakshuka or adding it into an omelet, it's hard to go wrong with this briny, salty Greek cheese. Long before baked feta pasta went viral on TikTok, feta was a star ingredient in spanakopita, or savory spinach pie, and tiropita or cheese pie.

Labneh or labna: A popular Middle Eastern cheese which is close to yogurt in its consistency, labneh can be enjoyed with pita and a little bit of olive oil. It's often served as a mezze, which is a selection of small appetizer dishes that might include olives, rice-stuffed vine leaves and salads.

Cream cheese: Enjoy it on a bagel with smoked salmon, use it to make frosting for red velvet cupcakes or make the cheesecake of your dreams -- cream cheese can do it all. Its fancier relative, mascarpone, is the main ingredient in tiramisu and many cheesecake recipes.

Cheddar: Affordable yet tasty, cheddar is often used as an inexpensive substitute in recipes that call for pricier cheeses such as gouda or havarti. While it's easy to dismiss cheddar as boring, its versatility can't be ignored. It's a staple in everyday favorites such as macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers and chili.

Cheesy innovations

Although cheese has been around for thousands of years, it seems like humans have yet to exhaust its potential. Recent years have seen impressive strides in dairy-free cheese development, which allows vegans and others who don't eat dairy to be included in the fun. Freeze-dried cheeses, another modern innovation, have become a hit among hikers due to the fact that these cheese products do not need to be refrigerated.

Finally, increasing conversations about sustainability in the dairy industry have prompted some manufacturers to adopt greener practices, such as pursuing carbon neutrality, implementing recycled packaging and even switching to cattle feed that reduces methane emissions.

Final thoughts

From Asiago to Zamorano, it seems like one day just isn't enough to celebrate all the types of cheese out there and the many ways in which they can be enjoyed. But if you're looking for a truly unique way to celebrate National Cheese Day, why not pick up the cheesecloth and try creating your own cheese? Even if you have to discard what you produce, who knows -- maybe it'll be unearthed in a couple thousand years.

Kristen Wood is a photographer, food writer and creator of MOON and spoon and yum. She is also the author of Vegetarian Family Cookbook, Fermented Hot Sauce Cookbook and Hot Sauce Cookbook for Beginners. Her work has been featured in various online and print publications, including Elle, Martha Stewart, Forbes, Chicago Sun-Times and more.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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