Holey Swiss cheese!

And cheddar, Brie, Monterey Jack and mozzarella: Cheese is hot, and not just in the fondue way.

Last year, Americans wolfed down an average of an incredible 30 pounds of cheese per person, whether shredded atop their pizzas, sliced into their sandwiches or nibbled off of those frilly toothpicks at the supermarket, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. When you consider that’s up from only 17 or 18 pounds of cheese per person in 1980, there’s no denying that America has become a cheesy nation.

The cheese display has even become a key corner in the supermarket, according to Phil Lempert, of www.supermarketguru.com. Instead of stocking only a few orange, plastic-wrapped slices by the Reddi-Wip, the cheese case has earned a premium spot to suck in customers with specialty cheeses arrayed attractively in wheels, triangles and colorful blocks. And consumers appreciate it: More people would rather receive cheese as a gift than candy, Lempert said.

"For the store, it’s a great display," he said. "There’s not a lot of people who eat a piece of cheese who don’t feel satisfied. You can cook with it, snack on it, put it on a sandwich. It’s one of the few products that can be used so many ways."

It wasn’t an overnight change. Cheese consumption in the U.S. has grown steadily — an increase of about 1 percent per capita for the last 30 or 40 years, according to Dick Groves, publisher and editor of the Cheese Reporter, based in Madison, Wis.

And a good portion of America’s growing hunger for cheese comes from its fondness for pizza, which returning servicemen popularized after tours in Italy after World War II. Tellingly, the largest jump in consumption for the major cheeses has been for mozzarella: In 1980, the average person ate three pounds of it; by 2000, that number tripled to more than nine pounds per capita. It’s now the third-most popular cheese in the United States. Only American cheese and cheddar sell more.

"That’s basically because of pizza," Groves said. "When I was a college student in Madison in the mid- to- late ‘70s, I think there was maybe one restaurant that delivered pizza, maybe two. Now there are I don’t know how many dozens of pizza restaurants."

But it’s the burgeoning plethora of exotic cheeses that may have put cheeses onto everyone’s plates.

"We as consumers have become so well traveled that our palates reflect the exposure to the new tastes," said Patrick Geoghegan, senior vice president of communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. "For a long time, the United States wasn’t as attracted to big flavors. That’s not as true as it used to be."

And the specialty cheesemakers have grown with the demand, with more than 300 varieties being made in the U.S. now, Lempert said. Before that, for most people Havarti came from Denmark, Brie and Camembert from France, and asiago from Italy.

"If you go back 10 or 15 years, you had less than half the varieties you had now," Lempert said.

The demand for some types of specialty cheeses has exploded, according to Dan Carter, chairman of artisan-cheese marketer Dan Carter Inc. Asiago cheese production jumped by 52.4 percent in a single year in 2001, Gorgonzola by 37.3 percent. In Wisconsin, still the nation's largest maker of cheese, some 233 million pounds of the stuff was artisan cheese — 11 percent of total cheese production in the state. Five years ago, specialty cheeses accounted for only 3 percent of the cheese made in Wisconsin.

"Much of it follows what happened in the domestic wine industry, where we went from jug wines to some really fine wines — and it's happening really fast in the cheese industry," he said. "People are making quality instead of quantity, and people are willing to pay for it."

It's key that people have changed along with the cheese industry. Nowadays, they aren’t afraid to investigate new flavors, or risk looking foolish trying.

"People are less inhibited than they used to be," Geoghegan said. "People aren’t afraid to admit their ignorance. We encourage people to go to the store and ask to taste the cheese. It’s the discovery process that people love."

On the other end of the quality spectrum, let’s not forget the importance of string cheese. Started basically as a fluke a little over 12 years ago, the peel-and-eat-it sticks of cheese caught on and made cheese popular as a by-itself snack. Now you can get cheese prepackaged with crackers and in a variety of easy-serve forms.

It’s only the tip of the cheese log, Lempert said. Expect to see more cheeses in convenient packaging, cheese with dips, cheeses with fruit and nuts in them and even cheeses in unusual colors, a la Heinz’s kid-targeted ketchup.

"I don’t think cheese flavors have even scratched the surface," Lempert said.

And, although 30 pounds sounds like a lot of cheese, Geoghegan suggested Americans leave room for more.

"The top cheese-consuming country is Greece, which eats 54 pounds per capita," he said. "I see no reason why the United States can't approach those numbers."