Friday, April 11, 2008


Yesterday my employer asked his wife why the cheese was in the refrigerator. It might seem an odd question, except V. is French, and habitually breaks food safety recommendations to keep her cheese out on the counter. "Here," she said, "it is too warm. In France we have a cool room next to the kitchen for keeping cheese. Anyway," she added, "in France we eat cheese at every meal, and use it up much more quickly." Her kitchen teems with bacteria -- kombucha and kefir and yogurt fermenting everywhere, raw milk and soft runny cheeses puddling at all sorts of scandalous torrid temperatures.

I made a little promise to myself that I would buy some good cheese when I got back to the city. After stilton and raclette and cave-aged gruyere, one finds oneself snubbing dowdy little annatto-yellow cheddars. Late in the afternoon, my companions paused in a small town to meet somebody. We were patiently sipping pinot noir when one of us said, "If you had to give up either wine or cheese, which would you stick to?" We weren't even eating cheese. It just so happened to be on everyone's mind.

"Wine," said the filmmaker to my left.

"Cheese," said the rapper to my right.

"Where is the boundary," I asked, "between milk and cheese? Leave me something fermented and dairy and I'll give up the cheese." I pictured myself straining a nice yogurt to a tangy custardy thickness and insisting to an arbiter of cultured dairy disputes that it really wasn't "cheese".

Some more pinot and a splash of bourbon later, I found myself on the way to the Tenderknob with a new girl who announced at no provocation, "I promise you, I love cheese more than you do."

Frankly, I'm just a casual cheese philanderer. A dairy dilettente. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. Before I even started this job, I knew cheese way more than anybody. But my boss knew orders of magnitude more than I did, and that was a year ago I started learning from her. I just spent the last week with an ex in Hawaii eating shitty food, and I can't wait to go eat some cheese."

What was the phrase my employer used? Show some neck. "What is it that you do?" I'm a cheese cur showing neck.

"I'm a cheesemonger." I'm a cowering mongrel. Maybe she'll give me a rind of parmesan if I visit her -- which, in fact, I think I just might do.

I do still wonder whether she likes cheese as much as a certain Babette. Babette hefts all her swaying furry bellies to come running when she smells chevre, or triple-cream brie, or a bit of feta still dripping with brine. Her complete abandon to epicurean enthusiasm leaves me a little breathless. How can a cat have such discriminating tastes -- eschewing milk and yogurt and creme fraiche in favor of "cheese" -- if cheese isn't, in fact, a distinct biological entity? It's not like she knows a damned thing about the coagulation of proteins, or the action of bacteria on milk sugars, but her little, little brain can put leathery romano and pickled sheep's milk feta and runny brie in the same category, and discriminate them from creme fraiche. Can she really taste the agedness that (usually) distinguishes cheese from other cultured dairy products?

I know; it's very tedious when people ascribe wonderful intelligence to their pets. But I'm doing just the opposite. Bless her, Babette isn't such a clever one -- leaving me to think it's the cheese that's so very smart. After all, the strangest thing about cheese is that it tastes like cat piss and soiled garments -- eminently nasty things -- but somehow dupes us into enjoying those same fungal flavors. And not without some advantage to itself. Think of the nice treatment we give our favorite cheese cultures (VIP petri dishes, nubile young cheesemongers). Rather a useful leg up in the cutthroat world of bacterial survival, no?

It's a clever cheese, I tell you.

1 comment:

Robin S said...

It hardly comes as a surprise that the cheese is not the disciple. It's 'cultured,' after all. One stews, one ferments, among the living particles everywhere and the air, and what results? Culture. But the name of this culture hinges on so many things: the stagnation of the air, precise coolness or warmth, slanting sun rays, wafting oak, minerals in dirt. Is wine so different in this?