Cheese Week

In the beginning, there was the Cow, and the Cow was laughing. The Cow was also a pun. The Cow adorned the trucks of the French military’s fresh meat supply (Ravitaillement en Viande Fraîche, or RVF) during World War I. Its designer, the influential artist and illustrator Benjamin Rabier, named it La Wachkyrie—pronounced La vache qui rit, literally “the cow that laughs”—a play on the mythological Valkyries beloved of France’s enemy Germany.

Is that why the Cow was laughing so hard its eyes were shut tight? Was it a simple pun? Or was the Cow laughing—is the Cow laughing still—because it knew what was to come? Because it knew that its chuckling visage would soon adorn containers of the greatest cheese the world has ever known?

Yes, the world’s greatest cheese is a processed cheese: Laughing Cow. It was developed in 1921 by the Frenchman Léon Bel (who worked for the RVF and who adapted Rabier’s illustration) and his partner, Émile Graf, whose family had pioneered, or possibly invented, processed cheese by melting gruyère—the premiere cheese of the mountainous Jura region bordering France and Switzerland—and reconstituting it, thereby not only preserving it but also enabling the use of scraps, visually challenged pieces, and cheeses of varying quality that might otherwise go to waste. Laughing Cow was the future: “Fromage Moderne,” read the copy on its first flat, circular cans.

And in the heyday of modernism, Laughing Cow was a fast success, in no small part due to Léon Bel’s marketing prowess. The Cow—its design improved by its creator, Benjamin Rabier, who tinted it red and gave it those dangling hoop-like earrings—appeared all over: on exercise books for schoolchildren, on delivery trucks, in TV commercials, in Disney coloring books. As icons go, it set a 20th-century standard.

What of the cheese itself? Originally, it was made from crème de gruyère, but the formula changed after World War II, when (according to Laughing Cow’s publicist) it became more of a “spreading cheese” composed of multiple varieties. Today the version sold in France contains emmental, cheddar, gouda, and mimolette (the cheese whose coating of mites makes it nearly unimportable in the US), while versions produced outside Europe have cheddar as the main ingredient, and vary in flavor and fat content: It’s 19 percent in France and the United States (where it’s manufactured in Kentucky), but in Vietnam it’s 21 percent. (This French article goes deep on the production process.)

But is any of this what makes Laughing Cow great? Not really. To understand its greatness, we need to go back to the early 1980s, when I was in elementary school in western Massachusetts.

Picture: a cafeteria lighted by flickering fluorescents, redolent of institutional turkey and gravy, cacophonous with the clacking of metal (yes, metal!) utensils on trays. Somewhere in the sea of 35-cent school lunches, a few kids have nonetheless brown-bagged it. I was one of them, with a PB&J or a soggily awesome roast-beef-and-pickle sandwich. And another of them, on one otherwise unremarkable day, brought, alongside a ham sandwich and baggy of carrot sticks, a foil-wrapped wedge of Laughing Cow cheese. 

How could I forget that sight? The colors were so brilliant, the anthropomorphization so subtle, the self-containment of the package so complete. I’d eaten cheese before, obviously; my parents kept a ready supply of Swiss in the fridge and Stoned Wheat Thins in the pantry, a combination that remains my ur-cheese experience. But that combo seemed somehow native to our corner of Massachusetts, while Laughing Cow was undeniably foreign, well worth the cherished Oreo I traded for it. It was soft, rich, tangy—to a child’s palate, utterly uncompromising. 

But what makes Laughing Cow so fundamentally great is not how the cheese tasted but what the cheese meant. Here was a cheese that was clearly for children. Why else market it with a cartoon character? Why else package it in foil wedges expressly designed to fit into lunchboxes and be unraveled by little hands? In an era when ketchup was designated a vegetable and missing children adorned milk cartons, here was a cheese that had us, not adults, in mind.

It was a gateway cheese through which I’d one day pass into a wider, more wonderful world of renneted lactates.

Yet it was also grown-up. The art had an elegance we never saw in our Saturday morning cartoons; the Cow may have been laughing, but certainly not at us. Beneath the foil, too, the cheese may have been processed, but its form and flavor were adult; you could spread or you could nibble, but either way, the cheese was supposed to be savored. And that idea, that cheese could be savored and not merely melted atop a burger or into macaroni, was a revelation. It told me not only that I could, as a child, have access to this sophisticated experience but that this was just the beginning, that just beyond the borders of age and geography lay yet more cheeses, soft and funky and harsh and crumbly—and that even though I might not be ready for them now, at least I still had this, an exotic pleasure meant solely for kids like me. It was a gateway cheese through which I’d one day pass into a wider, more wonderful world of renneted lactates.

And that’s pretty much what happened. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I learned about goat cheese and supermarket brie. As a young adult I went cheese-wild, drooling over a goat-cow-sheep cheese studded with black truffle bits, or bringing gooey Brillat-Savarin to a friend’s New Year’s party. I became a Cheese Guy, and Laughing Cow was responsible.

Along the way, however, Laughing Cow was phased out of my life. I spotted it on store shelves, and I once bought a wheel for a camping trip in Cambodia, but as of a few weeks ago, I hadn’t tasted it for real in decades. That made sense—like I said, it’s a cheese for children.

Still, I wondered: What did it actually taste like? 

So, I picked up a wheel and peeled open a wedge. I watching with joy as the little red string seamlessly removed the foil and revealed the pale, homogeneous cheese within. With a butter knife, I cut off the tip of the wedge and put it in my mouth. The first thing I tasted was the richness, which was undergirded by a tart flavor that only made the richness more powerful. It didn’t have the funk or complexity of, well, a grown-up cheese, but it was cheese in a way that Polly-O string cheese simply isn’t. Its intensity required me to be mentally present, not a thoughtless chomper. I was, once again, that grade-school kid getting his mind expanded with a single bite.

Dinnertime was approaching, and soon I was presenting a fresh wedge to Sandy, my 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter. (Her older sister, Sasha, is mostly anti-cheese.) To my delight, she appreciated the art, the name, and the trick of opening the foil with the red tab. She proceeded to eat three whole wedges, preferring them solo to smearing them on the excellent Bien Cuit baguette I’d brought home. The gateway, I saw, was opening for her. She had just one question for me:

“Why is the cow laughing?”