Appendix 1.21 – The Big Cheese

Today we have a yellow shirt which has a cartoon picture of a small gray mouse staring up at a large wedge of cheese. Above this it says “THE BIG CHEESE”. That is about the extent of it.

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to expect more out of it than that, but for whatever reason, I do. It kind of simultaneously feels like I’m missing something and also like I’m not missing anything at all and it is what it is. Obviously it’s a literal take on the figurative expression meaning an important person, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to indicate that the wearer is “the big cheese”, because I would expect in that case for it to say “I’m” in front of it, or have an arrow pointing up (or, more in line with sentiments on the other shirts recently featured, down) or something like that. But it doesn’t. So it just seems like it’s calling attention to the fact that the expression exists and that its figurative meaning is incongruous with its literal meaning, which of course is not only obvious but the whole point of using figurative language. The only thing I could think of was that “the big cheese” was at the time of this shirt only recently entering popular usage and therefore it was one of those shirts playing on the popularity of a new catchphrase, but a little research disproves that pretty easily.

Now that I’m done ranting on that, let me rant on another cheese-related topic, which is the depiction of cheese in a generic sense. Whenever someone wants to show something that is instantly recognizable as cheese, they do it in almost always the same way: as a yellow wedge with holes in it. I do not understand this. First, cheese with holes in it is typically interpreted to be Swiss, and Swiss cheese is usually a very pale yellow, almost white, not the bright yellow usually shown. This particular cartoon version is actually relatively moderate on the yellowness, although it appears less yellow than it is because it is on a yellow background. Typically it will be shown as a bright golden yellow, like one would associate with cheddar cheese. But the thing is, cheddar cheese is artificially colored yellow to make it distinct. Cheddar, as most cheeses, is like Swiss, naturally pale yellow to white. In fact, the vast majority of cheeses are not yellow, and the vast majority of cheeses do not have holes, yet the popular image of cheese is almost always yellow with holes. I say this as a resident of Wisconsin, home of the cheesehead, which of course is proudly displayed by shameless people by wearing foam hats in the color and shape of a bright yellow, holed wedge.

I know what you are saying—without that, how would we be able to, at a glance, know it’s cheese? A hunk of parmesan just looks like a piece of whitish solid stuff. You can’t cartoon its cheesiness otherwise. The nature of cheese is that it appeals to the other senses than sight. It’s about taste and smell and texture (and in the case of fresh curd, sound). Well, for starters, I have no problem with the wedginess, because most cheeses are made in round wheels and cut into wedges. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the holes either, because they are easy to draw and a handy marker. Just make it white, if it’s gonna have holes. If you want to make it yellow, get rid of the holes. That’s all I’m saying. You can’t have it both ways.

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