Ziemann: The great cheese plate hunt down

Columnist Megan Ziemann weaves a tale about college life, overcoming adversity and the search for cheese in her final column for the Iowa State Daily.

Megan Ziemann

Sept. 9, 2017. 

It’s the day of my first Cy-Hawk game and freshman me and my roommate are avoiding the commotion and people watching from a table by the window in the now-departed Arcadia Cafe on Lincoln Way. 

Being 18 at the time, we couldn’t enjoy a local draft beer or fancy glass of wine as we treated ourselves to lunch outside the dining center. 

Instead, we munched on freshly baked bread, chive butter and a large board of assorted cheeses. 

If you were one of my film buff friends, you’d refer to that day in Arcadia as my inciting incident for what would be a four-yearlong journey throughout Ames. 

Because I love cheese. 

And there is nothing I would rather do in lieu of studying, networking and otherwise furthering my education and budding career than eating every kind of cheese I can get my hands on.

And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since Sept. 9, 2017. It was then, during a very important football game we definitely should have been paying attention to (did we win? I doubt we did) that my roommate and I decided: together, we would find the best cheese plate in Ames. 

That day, we devised a plan. Over the duration of our time at Iowa State, we would seek out and try every single cheese plate offered in Ames city limits. We would grade them on a scale of one to 10 and document our scientific process through the only medium that would accommodate us: Twitter.

Let’s talk about the plan. To a couple of freshmen experiencing life in a college town for the first time, that sounded fantastic.

I thought of it, after all. How could it have any faults?

One: we were not 21. All bars and the charcuterie housed within were off-limits. And if you know anything about cheese plates (or at least more than I did four years ago) you’ll know that crosses off a lot of very good cheese. 

Two: we were full-time students living in a residence hall. While we did toy with the idea of heading to Union Drive Community Center (UDCC) and testing our luck with shredded cheese and whatever came out of the nacho cheese container on nacho day, in the end the “UDCC Special” did not make the final list.

However, we did have a solid foundation. 

College towns breed cafes of all kinds, and usually cafes will boast a cheese plate as an appetizer. And while the UDCC Special sounds atrocious (spoiler alert: we never found the courage to try it), it takes some creativity to think up something that bad.

But enough about the plan. Let’s get to the stops. Because yes, we did do this.

Throughout the fall semester of our freshman year, my roommate and I visited Mucky Duck, Stomping Grounds and Mucky Duck again. We tried three different cheese plates and rated each an average of 7.3 out of 10. 

Not bad. 

By Mucky Duck round two, we were getting busy with life as freshmen, so we decided to table the project and return next year. 

This will become a common theme.

Jan. 28, 2019.

My roommate and I were just beginning our second semester of our sophomore year. A couple of months prior, we gathered two other friends and the four of us were presently living in Frederiksen Court. 

That morning I was supposed to announce the speaker in my University Studies 315 class, a requirement for all future Cyclone Aides. I woke up to an ISU Alert letting me know that due to the polar vortex, classes were canceled for the first time since 2014.

Luckily, my roommates were awake, too. We had a swanky second floor university-funded apartment and the train woke all of us up every morning between 6 and 7 a.m. 

Cold, a little confused and deciding to abandon class work, we gathered in the living room and talked about the only important thing on each of our minds: revisiting the cheese plate hunt down.

You see, when we returned to campus for our sophomore year, charcuterie was becoming a rarity. In August, we were so ready to continue the project and finally figure out the difference between semihard and hard cheeses, but it seemed like no one in Ames was willing to give us a chance to learn.

Exasperated, we decided to reach out for help. 

Because no one was working, we had an overwhelming response. One of my former high school teachers and Iowa State alum direct messaged me and encouraged us to try Della Viti.

A wine bar in the historic main street district.

Uh oh.

As the days went on, the polar vortex continued to haunt campus and my roommates and I were forced to pause our evening ice cream runs to Hawthorn for the sake of our extremities. 

We paused the hunt down, too.

Feb. 15, 2020.

My 21st birthday. As my friends and I popped the metaphorical cork on a bottle of Barefoot Pink Moscato, we found ourselves brimming with newfound vigor. Della Viti was so close.

Part of me wanted to go that day. My friends agreed. 

But as we raised our plastic cups in celebration, we peered outside at the falling snow and remembered the reason why we knew about the wine bar in the first place. 

We remembered having to don two pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves in order to walk to the bus stop. 

We remembered slipping on the icy sidewalks as we made our way to Hawthorn.

Let’s take today off, we convinced ourselves. Della Viti will still be there in the spring.

March 11, 2020.

I was sitting in my honors project adviser’s office going over some specifics when I got the news. Iowa State would be moving classes online for the first two weeks after spring break and would reassess the situation in the beginning of April.

I had heard the whispers since February. There was some new sickness in China. It wasn’t just the flu. It spread really quickly. It was deadly.

One of my professors at the time was from Wuhan, so he kept the class updated with stories from his quarantined family. 

The facts were there. For me, none of them sunk in until March 11. 

I exhaled all the air from my body and recoiled as if I’d been punched. This couldn’t be happening now. I had a project to do, an internship in a different city to prepare for, my final semester of classes to plan. 

And what about Della Viti?

At first, my friends and I made the best of what we had. Our living situation had changed, and I was on my own in a studio apartment by this time. We attempted to talk it out. Grocery stores were still open, we said. We could plan to go shopping at the same time and pick up some cheese from the deli section. There was nothing about the hunt down that said we couldn’t make the plate ourselves.

Then the university shut down. 

My internship got canceled.

My friends were too scared to see me.

The hunt down was over.

In just a few short weeks, my life had turned upside down. My meticulously bullet-journaled plans had fallen apart. I didn’t know how I was going to gain marketing experience and make money over the summer. Who cared about cheese?

I should have gone when I had the chance. Why didn’t we go when we had the chance? 

This pandemic was getting out of control. Things may not be normal until a year from March. 

A year from March, I would already have graduated, moved and left all of my friends miles away. I blew it.

Now we’ll never find the best cheese plate in Ames. 

Nov. 17, 2020. 

I’m sitting in a half-empty apartment writing this instead of filling out peer evaluations. A week and four days from today, I will be a college graduate.

But no, I still haven’t been to Della Viti. I’ve hung out with my cheese plate friends a handful of times. For all intents and purposes, the great cheese plate hunt down remains indefinitely on pause. 

And that’s OK. Not all things go to plan. If the past four years taught me anything, it’s that you can plan every bit of your life up to the second and things will still go wrong. That’s just life.

So do that thing you’ve been putting off (provided it’s safe and pandemic-friendly). You never know when you’ll lose the chance.

When the country gets itself back under control, maybe I’ll make a trip up to Ames and finally try that Della Viti cheese plate.

I will not, however, be returning to UDCC. That’s on you all.