Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Pretensions of Cheese

And here's an entry to serve as testament to the fact that this is, indeed, a foodie-blog. Out of necessity, there must be a few words about cheese.

Look, I'll admit it, I get nervous when a plate of cheese is brought out by my host or hostess and it's met by variations of the following statement: "Goodness! Where did you find all these wondrous samples, in this pitiful country that wouldn't know a delectable piece of cheese if it grew on its own nose?" It can be at the beginning of an evening, or at the end of the meal, but I invariably become a little shifty and start crafting an exit strategy in the event that the conversation should turn in my direction and ask me my opinions on the new focal point (or platter) of the evening. In these situations I always choose to contribute my "party-cheese" story, the only really interesting encounter I've had with cheese of late: in the middle of vineyard hopping in the area where I go to grad school, I somehow ended up at a cheese farm. When I pulled into that farm, there was a very angry looking cow sitting right in the middle of the driveway, a child wretching by the front porch, and a man wearing overalls, a cowboy hat, and chewing on straw handing out samples of gelato....see how quickly the topic moves off cheese?

I think I first started to wonder about the politics of cheese when I read a conversation carrying on between college acquaintances on our alumni 'blog' of sorts, called planworld. Some people couldn't wait to go home, after hard days at work, to a nice block of cheese--and that was it. Others smuggled it in from abroad, marveling at its funk--the stinkier, the better. And still others listed cheese as 'things that are good in this world' and keeping chins up in otherwise dreary times. What amazed me was not only that I had certain ideas of the people I expected to like cheese so much--these were constructed ideas of elite taste that correlated with high taste in fashion, decor, coffee, etc.--but that I was shocked every single time others surprised me with their own cheese-confessions. People who have no interest in the other elite tastes loved cheese. I had internalized the construction of the cheese-lover in my mind, and it was being severely challenged.

Cheese-lovers take themselves pretty seriously. There are societies where they come together, there are well-known, illegal markets of the 'good stuff' (which is made out of raw milk and has basically been deemed potentially life-threatening to consume), and they have lobbyists as any other special interest group would.

When you ask cheese-lovers exactly what it is about the cheese that they love, the answers are full of pretension--including references to texture, robustness, sharpness, muted qualities, etc. But I suppose if we could forgive any food these sorts of descriptions, there's something about age being a factor in a recipe that affords cheese a certain pretension (similar to wine). It's as though the food has accumulated some amount of wisdom over those years, and the more we let pass by, the 'smarter' it gets.

It would be nice if planworld's love for cheese and the way it brings people together from completely different walks of life (besides the fact that we all went to the same, small liberal arts college on the hill) could be a microcosm for the larger impact cheese--and its obsessed-- could have on the world.

OK, so just when I'm coming around on cheese, one of the country's leading cheese experts, Steven Jenkins, is found saying this (about the FDA's statements on the health hazards of cheese made with raw milk): ''It's going to wipe out one of the most beautiful and romantic links between human beings and the earth that we will ever know, and we are going to be the lesser for it.''

In response to this, I'll quote none other than my husband, who, rightfully-so, is interested in being on same page as me when it comes to romance: "So squeezing something from an animal's teet, curdling it into a solid, and eating it is supposed to be romantic?"

Fortunately, I disagree. Woof, was that an elitist entry! Excuse me, but I must now go in search of my monacle to read Paradise Lost as I get ready for bed. It may not have been Milton's best work, but it will do. At least, I know Obama would agree with me. And that's why I love him.


Leo said...

I personally find it very romantic. What does your husband know, anyway?

Julie said...

Well, now I know what to get you for your birthday (hint: it's not cheese).

K said...



sutros said...

A good story

GK Chesterton: “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

Voila: www.tastingtoeternity.com. This book is a poetic view of 30 of the best loved French cheeses with an additional two odes to cheese. Recipes, wine pairing, three short stories and an educational section complete the book.

From a hectic life in New York City to the peace and glories of the French countryside lead me to be the co-founder of www.fromages.com. Ten years later with the words of Pierre Androuet hammering on my brain:

“Cheese is the soul of the soil. It is the purest and most romantic link between humans and the earth.”

I took pen and paper; many reams later with the midnight oil burning Tasting to Eternity was born and self published.

I believe cheese and wine lovers should be told about this publication.