The Cheese Aisle Is In Its Retro Era

published Nov 19, 2023
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cheese display at grocery store
Credit: Thomas Hoerup

With the unfortunate resurgence of early 00’s low-rise jeans, I know I can’t be the only one to notice another staple is very much in its retro era: cheese. Yes, you read correctly. Much like crop-tops, platform shoes, and flare jeans, cheese, of all things, is playing with the trends of the 90’s all the way back to the ‘30s — and having fun, clearly. 

Scanning the aisles of your local grocery store (or TikTok or your favorite bar’s cocktail menu), you’ll find a veritable Eras Tour of cheeses on display: kitschy baked bries harkening to brassy, neon 80’s Bunco night; Depression-era limburger cheese spread upon crusty brown bread; or a 70’s-style fondue pot of Gruyère, complete with cubed bread and sliced apples (shag carpet not included). 

Do we even need to mention how Lunchables is making a billion dollar comeback in school cafeterias? Yes, yes we do.

Cheese is overtaking your cocktails, too, in the form of mozzarella foams, Parm-infused tequilas, and Velveeta martinis (a doubly 90’s duo). Yes, the boxed mac you used to enjoy while watching the TGIF prime-time TV line-up is now in drinkable form, meaning you can transport yourself to the safety of a cheesy childhood daydream in just a few sips. 

TikTok is, as you might expect, the key reason for resuscitating many of these cheesy traditions of yore. When in doubt, if you see a bare spot on the shelf, it’s likely due to a newly-viral TikTok trend. Most recently, the party has been happening at none other than the cottage cheese section. So much so that cottage cheese makers in Wisconsin are even expanding their operations, banking on the viral popularity of the trend to last long after the buzz dies down, says Josie Krogh, the digital editor for Culture, a magazine that focuses on the (literal) culture of cheese and the people who craft it.

You likely lived through the Great Cottage Cheese Awakening of 2023, where TikTokers like Justine Doiron (aka @Justine_Snacks) popularized “cheese bowls”. At its core, this particular dish is a beautiful thing, really, bringing less likely-to-be-a-star cheeses, like ricotta and cottage cheese, to the main stage by putting cheese in general at the center of a meal (the dream). In place of a separately cooked protein, Doiron adds a generous spoonful or two of said cheeses to a bowl before loading up on fun toppings, like sauteed vegetables, crusty bread for dipping, and herbs and spice blends, like za’atar. 

While in the 80’s and 90’s, cottage cheese might have summoned images of cutting fat and carbs, aerobicizing, and likely some sort of sweat-band-leotard combo, these 20’s-era cottage cheese entrees are all about the addition of things, not the taking away. Recipes for cottage cheese bowls, cottage cheese pastas, and cottage cheese toasts are the maximalist foil to what you might expect of cottage cheese:  You eat cottage cheese because you want to, not because you have to.

The glow-up of other cheeses is not insubstantial, either, as it’s resulting in a boom of retro recipes and restaurant dishes highlighting rich, gooey, more luxurious cheeses that the dark ages of the fat-free 90s nearly made extinct.

What is old can be new again and absolutely should be, because there’s plenty of correcting to do when it comes to reviving the popularity of cheeses, such as nutty alpine cheeses like Gruyère and Comté, entry-point blue cheeses like Cambozola, and even more infamously funky cheeses like Limburger. 

“I feel like overall we’re all kind of looking for comfort and you find comfort in nostalgia because everything feels so chaotic and scary right now.” — Sohla El-Waylly, chef and cookbook author.

Limburger, a stinky turn of the century cheese made seemingly the butt of too many jokes in TV shows across the 20th century (maligned in a song by the B-52s and a sketch from Monty Python, amongst many others), is now staging its major comeback, says Krogh. “People are either discovering for the first time or rediscovering foods that they had written off as gross without necessarily trying them or understanding them,” she says, adding that this discovery is similar to cottage cheese’s comeback.

Plenty of so-called “retro” cheeses are also allowing consumers to transport themselves into a different lifestyle altogether: the cacio e pepe-fication of everything (throwback to the collective U.S. obsession of 90’s Italian foods and vacations abroad), ripe, oozy 70’s-style raclettes that make you feel like you’re in a sepia-toned Swiss Chalet, and baked brie ushering in visions of your mom’s 80’s Tupperware parties, perhaps stealing a swipe of it as you rushed off to your room.

Nostalgia (and cheese) are deliciously stabilizing in times where something consistently good can be just what you need on the menu. “I feel like overall we’re all kind of looking for comfort and you find comfort in nostalgia because everything feels so chaotic and scary right now,” says Sohla El-Waylly, chef and author of the new cookbook, Start Here who likes the rich funk of Treasure Cave. “So it’s kind of nice to have the cheeseboards your mom or your grandmother put out, like something that feels like it’s from the 70’s, a time that maybe you know in retrospect feels simpler even though it wasn’t.”

In a sea of new-this new-that, we might just earnestly crave reinvention — whether it be in the form of clothes, design, or yes, cheese. Much like you might restyle the shoulder-padded sequin shift dress of your mom’s 80’s heyday, the sweet nostalgia of these cheese trends are just as, if not more, delicious to savor.