The high school cafeteria I endured for five years served something we called “eraser cheese.” These little chunks came off an enormous block of government-surplus cheddar, sliced into 3-inch oblongs and vulcanized by the passage of time. Its uncanny power resided in its ability to rub out mistakes in pencil better than any Pink Pearl or Art Gum.
Was it food? Was it a handy classroom tool? Or was it a tiny slab of compressed mystery like a miniature megalith from a dairy-based Stonehenge? Had these gummy little rectangles been transmuted by some academic abracadabra into a substance unknown to humankind? This was the era of moon rocks and lava lamps, mood rings and space-age plastics. More than once I wondered if eraser cheese could bring Superman to his knees as well as kryptonite.
In this state of confusion, if a long boring day spun me into a miserable educational stupor, I might gnaw on a real eraser and derive some satisfaction, if not nutritional value.
In college, I encountered Robbe Grillet’s novel, The Erasers, in which he dwells for 250 pages on soft rubber secrets, murders and lost memory. Soon afterward, David Lynch’s film Eraserhead opened for me vast new vistas of top-of-the-pencil dread and loathing. Had I stumbled onto the periphery of a worldwide conspiracy? Were the dietitians at Gates-Chili High School trying to indoctrinate me into some cult of edible erasure? “You can eat it or you can use it in algebra class,” they seemed to whisper.
As a kid, there was a stale stub of translucent gum eraser in my mother’s desk. It seemed more ancient than any Rosetta stone or Neanderthal bone. Faintly oily, crumbly to the touch, it was used by no one for nothing. In fact it had long ago lost its ability to remove graphite writing. It was like an office fossil, in with the rusty paper clips, bent brass fasteners and dried-up fountain pen cartridges.
So, encountering the eraser cheese there on my cafeteria tray - room temperature, oily, yet unyielding - conjured up a deeper childhood puzzle. What defines something as food, I wanted to know. Caffeine-free Diet Pepsi has absolutely no nutritional value. Yet it’s considered food. At least erasers give the teeth something to do. Eraser cheese, better in my desk than in the lunchroom, confounded my adolescent mind.
I nibbled, I rubbed, and I wondered.