Saturday, April 17, 2004


"What are you looking for?" he demanded. "I know where everything is and can find it quicker than you!"

His remarks carried an undisguised air of disdain peppered with a distinct lack of patience. They were enhanced by a resonant throaty growling, the disconcerting trademark of a longtime smoker.

A tall man, perhaps in his late 60's, with slicked back hair harking back to another era, he looked like he could play the walking dead in a horror movie. He glared at me with dark sunken eyes ringed by sagging, jaundiced bags of skin offset by the grayish hue of his overall complexion. He was gaunt, but I'm certain in his youth many would have considered him burly. I wondered if his current waxy appearance was due to his chosen profession or if he was suffering from a disease that discolored his skin.

Despite the curiousness of it all, his countenance was still intimidating, and it was obvious my inquisitive stares weren't appreciated.

"You gonna buy something?"

He wanted me to buy cheese.

Welcome to Cheese Haven, the largest cheese shop in Ohio.

Although it promotes itself as something of a tourist attraction, Cheese Haven is rather dingy and, as I was finding out, disquieting too. It's a block long building sitting on the edge of Lake Erie, stuffed from floor to ceiling with cheeses, smoked meats, candies and an assortment of other edibles or things that purported to be edible in decades gone by.

I determined there were three employees. The Bela Lugosi look-alike who was barking at me, a woman manning the meat counter I presumed to be the bride of Bela, and a younger woman near the candies. I guessed she was their daughter - heiress to the Cheese Haven Empire.

"I'm not sure what I'm looking for", I responded cautiously, "I've seen the signs for miles and they sparked my interest."

That was true. There aren't a lot of tourist attractions in Port Clinton, Ohio. On New Year's Eve they have a walleye drop to compete with the giant ball drop in New York's Times Square. I had seen the road signs promoting Cheese Haven. They reminded me of road trips with my family as a child when each little town boasted its own unique oddities. Today, most towns provided little when it came to the unexpected. Wal-Marts and McDonalds now chew up the landscapes, digesting small town individuality in the process.

"Try this!" He ordered, pointing me toward a plate littered with unidentified cheese cubes, "We age all our own cheeses."

I had already noticed the samples of cheese scattered on plates about the store, but had also taken note of the dust. It appeared everything in the store was being aged, not only the cheeses.

Although hygiene questions lingered loudly in the back of my mind, when Bela the cheese vampire barked, I felt I had no choice. I tried not to tremble as I picked up a cheese cube. I also made the effort not to dwell on the fact there were no toothpicks provided which meant any number of people had shakily fondled the same food I was now reluctantly putting in my mouth.

"You like that? How many pounds you want?"

I was quickly looking for an out...the sample was tasty, but I wasn't prepared to deal with high pressure cheese sales.

"You sell meats too?" I asked. I knew as soon as the question left my possibly poisoned lips, it would be met with a rolling eyed response of disbelief.

"Everything in the counters that isn't cheese is meat. Go down there" he said, pointing to the area where his wife was stationed, "tell her what you want, and how much, but I better see you trying the horseradish cheddar spread on the way...we're famous for it!"

Bela turned away, seemingly in disgust. I stepped out of view thankful to escape the cheese interrogation while feeling a small amount of shame for seeking refuge in hard salami.

As directed, I did pause to sample the horseradish spread. My eyes welled up almost immediately as my sinuses went into instant rebellion. This stuff was not for the meek, but I was learning fast that Cheese Haven itself seemed designed in part to cull the less stout members from the human herd.

Beads of horseradish fragranced sweat were still forming on my upper lip as I stopped in front of the extensive meat counter only to hear the bark of Bela's bride, "Try this!" she said, shoving a tray of jumbled meat cubes in my direction.

Still gasping for air, wondering if it was possible for horseradish to literally burn someone's nostril hairs and convinced I wouldn't be able to taste anything for several months, I timidly responded, "Looks delicious...what is it?"

"Our famous beef link. Two pounds for 12-95. You can keep one and give one to a friend."

I wondered what friends I was close enough to, or perhaps distanced enough from, that I could gift them with a foot long link of meat when the Bride of Bela saw fit to add, "It's 100 percent beef!"

The broad context of that definition didn't reassure me, but I smiled...and swallowed.

"So how many you want?" she asked, order pad in hand.

I now knew that although I had escaped the cheese ghoul, I had not eluded Cheese Haven's strong arm sales tactics.

I muttered something about not being able to make up my mind and wandered quickly toward the candy section, the aroma of horseradish trailing behind me.

To my surprise the Cheese Haven Empress manning the candy station didn't exert any pressure on me at all. Perhaps she hadn't been fully indoctrinated. I was grateful for the momentary sanctuary.

Then I saw them.

The hard candies. Not the stuff you see everywhere. Not the stuff you see anywhere these days, unless you're really searching.

Horehound drops, and hard candy root beer barrels. The tooth rotting pure sugar pleasures of my early childhood. Even the packaging was the same, little bags which children knew could be fished out of the pockets of their fathers and grandfathers with well timed good behavior or a loving glance of innocence.

My heart pounded. I could taste those long forgotten delights already...memories powerful enough to neutralize even the lingering stench of horseradish.

I'll admit to having passing fears that perhaps these small candy treasures were available only because they'd been sitting in those same bins unsold for decades. I wondered if generations of people blessed with common sense had passed them by.

However I had already braved manhandled cheese chunks and steroid infused horseradish spread....I was a new man, even if I was reaching back into my past.

I gleefully snatched up several bags.

"Is that all for you today?" Miss Cheese Haven asked as I set my finds before her on the counter.

"Um, this and some of that horseradish spread please" - I looked over my shoulder and it appeared that Bela the cheese vampire gave a slight nod of approval as he said, "So you found everything you wanted on your own huh?"

I laughed, "I didn't know what I needed until I got here."

I opened that bag of root beer barrel candy as soon I drove away, the flavor carried me blissfully past the Wal-Mart and McDonald's across the street.

*This story is for the most part fiction. Cheesehaven exists and they sell many fine products. Tonight I had the urge to write something a little different and took many liberties along the way. Cheese Haven does sell horehound and root beer barrel candies like I remember from my youth. There's no such thing as a Cheese vampire, as far as I know.