Cheese

by , 2005

It all started more than five thousand years ago in the middle of an Arabian Desert. After that much time, details tend to become a bit hazy, but here's how I imagine it happening: Our hero, let's call him Billy, who is living somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean decides to buy a golden necklace for his camel from the finest maker of camel accessories in the world, a guy named Steve living just south of Cairo. Most people, when heading out across the desert, fill a sheep stomach with water for the long, dry journey, but Billy is not like most people. Instead of water, he fills his sheep stomach with milk because he figures that way he'll kill two birds with one stone: he'll stay hydrated and have some caloric intake. After a day or two of trekking across the vast Arabian Desert, Billy finally gets thirsty and opens up his sheep stomach to drink some of his milk. When he pours out the now chunky liquid, he yells, "Holy shit! My milk got chunky. That's disgusting! I'm going to die because I have no liquid to sustain me. Why didn't I just bring water?" His camel just looks at him at him dumbly and thinks, "Silly humans, they have no humps." A day later, out of desperate hunger and thirst, Billy decides to just eat the chunky milk, thinking that eating it can't possibly be worse than death. Not only is the chunky milk better than death by starvation, it is delicious. The enzymes in the sheep stomach had caused the milk to begin coagulating into curds and whey instead of going sour. Billy, amazed at how good this new chunky milk tastes, decides right then and there to name it Cheese, which in his native language means, "Chunky milk coagulated by the rennet found in a sheep's stomach that tastes really, really good." Thousands of years later, we are still enjoying the results of Billy's accidental discovery. In fact, the chunky milk has evolved into over 400 varieties of cheese of which over 6 billion pounds are produced each year.

According to the USDA, the average American consumes 7.5 pounds of Cheddar each year. Almost all of that is American Cheddar--hardly the same as traditional British Cheddar. Traditional Cheddar is aged in cloth at a relatively high temperature and gains its yellow color from bacteria that interact with the unpasteurized milk. American Cheddar is shrink-wrapped, aged at room temperature, and is often dyed orange to cover up the fact that it is always made with pasteurized milk. Even the best American Cheddar is not as good as 'real' Cheddar, but we generally are not even eating that. Instead, we eat mutated, disfigured, diluted Cheddar in the form of Cheez Whiz, Kraft American Cheese singles, Velveeta, cheese spread, Scooby Doo Cheese Flavored Crackers, etc. We Americans have many things to be proud of. Cheese is not one of them.

I was walking about aimlessly through Costco with a gift card from my mother and an empty shopping cart, trying to decide what it is that I should buy. I had fifty dollars to spend on groceries, but I never spend fifty dollars on groceries. I can spend $85 on a dinner date, but can't justify buying fresh produce because cans are so much cheaper. Wandering down the colossal aisles and not finding any use for eight-pound cans of refried beans or two-gallon tubs of mayonnaise, I stumbled upon a beautiful idea: cheese. I entered the refrigerator section and was confronted by seemingly endless glass doors that open to shelves of cheese. Here, next to the eggs and milk, are the basic cheeses. I grabbed a two pound block of cheddar, extra sharp of course, contemplated the Swiss, put a six-pound cube of Mozzarella into my cart, noticed but didn't consider the processed American cheese, picked up the Swiss and look at it for a while, then with my other hand grabbed some Colby Jack. Eventually, I put the Swiss back, deciding that the Cheddar, Colby, and Mozzarella would be enough. I still was only about half way to the fifty-dollar mark, I realized, and so I headed towards the deli section. They keep the good cheeses there: Gouda, fresh Mozzarella, Edam, Blue, Brie, Queso Fresco, Feta, Ricotta. I got a nicely sized triangle of Gouda, a wheel of Brie, and a ball of fresh Mozzarella. The Feta looks intriguing, but it is difficult to eat without salad and I had no money left for salad ingredients. I took my cartful of cheese (and some salami) up to the registers at the front and waited through an enormous line. When I finally got to the register, the cashier looked at me and asked, "So you like cheese, huh?" I just stared back at her coldly and acted like I didn't hear her. Her question was full of condescension, and no one is allowed to criticize my cheese.

All cheese is made in basically three steps: producing curd, concentrating curd, and ripening curd. There are a couple exceptions to this rule, mainly Ricotta, Petite Suisse, and the other unripened cheeses that skip step three. A starter culture is added to the milk and the milk is heated. When rennet, a product found on the inside lining of sheep and other animals' stomachs, is added, the milk begins to coagulate and form curds. The curd is allowed to sit for a while before concentration begins. Concentration is achieved in a variety of ways, including but not limited to cooking, pressing, and salting. After the curd has been concentrated, the ripening process begins in a cool, humid room. Ripening is basically just a process of controlled spoilage. The bacteria added earlier continues to interact with the curd, giving cheese is flavor, texture, and consistency. Now that I've told you the steps, go make your own cheese. What? I wasn't specific enough? Well, that's because it's impossible to be more specific than this while talking about all cheeses at once. Each step of the process varies for different types of cheese. Two remarkably different cheeses can share all the same ingredients, but become different only because different production processes.

I may sound condescending towards American cheese. If so, that's because I think American cheese is shit. Don't get me wrong, I am American and realize that I eat the same shitty cheese that I criticize. I love Scooby Doo Cheddar Flavored Crackers. I'm not trying to say I'm better than anyone. I just want to say that I realize that most American cheese is not real cheese.

The United States Department of Agriculture predicts that over 13.6 million metric tons of cheese will be produced this year, up from just under 13 million in 2003. A number like 13.6 million metric tons can be difficult to comprehend, but maybe this will help: a typical elephant weighs about five metric tons. So, the weight of cheese expected to be produced this year is roughly equal to the weight of an army of 2.7 million elephants. The United States will produce just over 30% of this, around 4.15 million metric tons. The average price of a metric ton of Cheddar cheese in the U.S. in 2003 was almost exactly $3,000. You may be asking yourself, where is all this cheese going? You're eating it. Only 58 metric tons will be exported in 2005. The other 4.1 million will be consumed by Americans. The average American consumed 21.8 pounds of cheese in 2003, up 248% from the average consumption of 8.8 pounds per person in 1970. The 2003 consumption rate breaks down to a full ounce each day, representing a daily intake of 93.7 calories or 0.627 servings. As I may have mentioned earlier, Cheddar leads the cheeses in amount of average yearly consumption by Americans at 7.5 pounds. Mozarella is a close second at 7.48 pounds per year. Other than those two, no specific type of cheese (unless you consider processed cheese as a type of cheese) is consumed at an average rate of more than a pound per year.

Do you remember the Sunday School story of David and Goliath? Do you remember what David's father, Jesse, had the little shepherd David bring to the Israelite army who was facing the Philistines? You guessed it--cheese. Jesse told David before he left home, "And carry these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge." He also sent some corn and bread along. When David arrived, he found that a champion warrior for the Philistines, Goliath, had been challenging the Israeli army to send out a man to fight him for forty days, but no one was willing to go. David volunteered and went out to face the giant warrior without any armor. Everyone thought it was a joke at first, but then David managed to slay Goliath with a stone and a sling. People typically give credit for the miraculous victory to God, but I think it might have been the cheese. The main cheese produced in Israel today is Lebbene, a sheep's milk cheese often shaped into little balls and enjoyed throughout the Middle East. There has to be a link here. A small shepherd boy takes cheese to the army and kills a giant with a small, round stone three thousand years ago, and today his descendents eat sheep cheese in similarly shaped balls.

Cheese Racing is a rather unconventional sport that jumped onto the scene in 1997. Since its founding in the United Kingdom by some drunken campers, it has become an underground phenomenon. Like most sports, Cheese Racing is complex and cannot be simplified into a brief description, but here is my feeble attempt: each competitor places his or her Kraft singles cheese, still in the plastic wrap, on the barbeque at exactly the same time. No touching or moving of the cheese after this point is allowed until the conclusion of the race. The racer owning the first cheese wrapper to fully inflate is the winner. If there is a draw, a second match must occur between the two competitors who tied. The pioneers of this sport were creative/intelligent/bored enough to publish their rulebook on their web site. They also offer a few helpful tips such as to always use regular Kraft American Cheese slices, not generic or low-fat varieties. Although the British generally kick our asses when it comes to making cheese, in this particular area, an American cheese is clearly the best. Also, don't have the barbeque too hot. There should be hot coals, no flames. After all, we're trying to inflate the cheese pouches here, not melt them. Since their original cheese race, fans of the sport have joined in around the world. Every weekend, there are people racing cheese on their backyard barbeques. Others have even documented their own cheese racing adventures on the Internet as well. Interested in cheese racing yourself? Well, first you need to get the proper apparel. You can get an official Cheese Racing thong for only $9.99 or a trucker cap for $12.99 online. They have other apparel available too, but I personally recommend just the thong and trucker cap. Then, ask your buddies if they know any cheese racers in the area. Chances are that you probably already know someone who knows someone who is a cheese racer. Get a big group together, grab some cheese and a barbeque grill and go have some fun. Don't forget the thong and trucker cap.

The Muenster cheese family offers a good example of the way in which cheeses evolve as they pass through different regions. American Muenster cheese does not at all resemble its French predecessor. In Alsace, if you were to go into a local cheese shop and ask for Munster, you would be given a seven-inch wheel, just over an inch thick, of soft, creamy, straw-colored cow's milk cheese with a strong beefy and nutty flavor, encased in a dry, russet-colored rind. The Munster you're given will have a smell of "rotting fruits and vegetables and barnyard animals" because of the ingredients used to wash its rind in the third stage of production, but is still bursting with a beautiful flavor that is described as by Jenkins as a "triumph of cheese making." Munster was originally produced in monasteries (the name Munster is a derivation of monastère) but is now produced by artisans all throughout the Alsace region. The Germans quickly took the name of the cheese and added an umlaut to it to make it German, but Münster is, at best, a sloppy imitation of the French original. Münster is produced by factories rather than artisans. Both the size and flavor of the cheese reflects this switch. Münster is produced in wheels twice as tall and bigger around, weighing about six pounds each. The benefits of producing larger wheels are all economical: more actual cheese is produced with fewer ingredients and man-hours. But, what is gained economically is lost in taste. The larger wheels are not able to absorb as much of the flavor of the rind washing because there is less rind and more cheese. As a result, Münster is considerably milder and barely resembles its predecessor. The Americans took the imitation/adaptation/mutation even further. They dropped the umlaut, added an e, and altered the production process so much that there is almost nothing in common between Muenster and Munster except that both are made from cow's milk. American Muenster is ripened in loaves with paprika exteriors instead of the wheels and rinds used to make its predecessors. The interior is a creamy white instead of straw-colored; the only color in Muenster is the light orange exterior caused by the paprika. Obviously, because it has no rind, it cannot be rind washed and, therefore, does not have any of the beefy and nutty flavor that the original is known for. In fact, American Muenster is best known for its bland taste. It is commonly used as a sandwich cheese or in recipes in which melted cheese that will not add too much flavor is called for.

I woke up in the middle of the night a few weeks ago with a thought that I didn't want to forget. I grabbed the notebook and pen laying next to my bed (precisely for this reason), scribbled something, and then went back to sleep. The next evening, I came home from work and saw that I had written something on the notebook. It read: "Write like a cheese." I thought about that for a while, and although I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote it, came to the conclusion that I was probably trying to tell myself to model my essay--this essay--after a type of cheese. I thought of the options. I could make it like Cheddar, solid, condensed, and blandly uniform; like Swiss, solid in areas but containing big holes; like Brie, with a thick rind but a soft, smooth interior; or even like American processed cheese singles, a collection of separate pieces each encased in cellophane wrapping. I decided on crumbled Feta, "a young, crumbly sheep's-milk cheese that is pickled in brine."

Ever wonder why Packers fans are called cheeseheads? I had always just assumed that the team's name was somehow connected with cheese, but I was wrong. In fact, the Packers were not associated with cheese at all throughout the first fifty years of their history. The team was established in 1919 and sponsored by the Indian Packing Company, the employer of Curly Lambeau, one of the founders. As a thank you for the sponsorship, the team adopted the name of Packers and remained closely associated with the Indian Packing Company throughout its early existence. The huge success they achieved in their first years allowed the team to become a franchise of the newly formed National Football League in 1921. The Green Bay Packers went on to become one of America's most famed underdogs. Their Superbowl victories in 1967 and 1968 prompted resentment among Chicago football fans who began calling the Green Bay fans cheeseheads to ridicule their country bumpkin-ness. A clever capitalist and Packer fan began producing plastic cheeseheads in 1987 and by doing so, turned the insult into a matter of pride. Now, if you were to travel to Lambeau Field on an autumn Sunday, you'd be likely to find thousands of green and yellow-clad fans topped with a plastic cheesehead. You can purchase your own official cheesehead for only $20 from Foamation, the company that has been producing them from the start. There are also several variations available including the Patriotic Cheesehead Hat, the Cheesehead Cowboy Hat, and, of course, the Cheesehead Sombrero.

I was sixteen years old and vacationing with my family in Maui. We were on the patio at Corelli's just after sunset, celebrating the upcoming wedding of my cousin-in-law's brother. The ocean and sky still had a few lingering hints of red, but the darkness of the night was taking over. The waves hit the beach with a monotonous thud that many find relaxing, but that has always been agitating to me (and my grandfather and father). Still, the fragrant air and company of my large family spread over two tables on this Hawaiian night was pleasant as the waiter came around with the appetizer menus. I immediately saw Mozzarella Tomato Salad and knew that's what I was getting. My cousin tried to persuade me to get the clams or oysters, "They're great over here," but I could not resist the cheese, even though the simple appetizer that I always make at home was there twenty dollars. The mozzarella and tomato came served on a large white plate, alternating slices of beautiful red tomato and soft white cheese. A toothpick was speared through the middle, as though to look like an afterthought, but I saw deliberateness in the way it was positioned. The splash of olive oil that is dropped on has the same appearance of organized randomness. The plate in front of me was so beautiful, a part of me wanted to just leave it there to look at. But, my mouth overcame my eyes, and I cut a quarter out as neatly as I could. The tomato and olive oil were wonderful, but outdone by the soft, fresh mozzarella that is beyond comparison. I finished the appetizer and then my entree and dessert, but years later, I cannot even remember what they were or who was at the dinner. I'll remember the taste of that perfect cheese forever.

"Say cheese." "Cheese!" Click. Why?

There is a school of thought that maintains that Homer's Odyssey, like the Iliad, is actually the telling of a historical event, not a fictional story. Like the Iliad, the Odyssey was composed by Homer hundreds of years after the events he was describing took place. In those years between Odysseus' famous voyage and Homer's composition, the story was maintained through an oral storytelling tradition that often elaborated and exaggerated events. By the time Homer wrote his epic, Odysseus' journey through the Mediterranean had acquired several supernatural characteristics. According to this line of thinking, the Island of Polyphemus was actually Sicily and the Cyclops were actually Sicilians. This conclusion was reached by analyzing geographical landmarks mentioned in the tale. It is also thought that the idea of the Cyclops, or race of men with one eye, was originally a race of men with one eyebrow. The unibrowed Sicilians had transformed into Cyclops in between Odysseus' journey and Homer's telling of it. According to the Odyssey then, Sicilians have been making cheese for a long time. When Odysseus entered Polyphemus' cave, he observed that, "So we entered the cave and gazed in wonder at all things there. The crates were laden with cheeses, and the pens were crowded with lambs and kids." Odysseus' men suggested taking that cheese they saw on the racks along with the penned lambs and sheep, but Odysseus chose to behave honorably and wait for Polyphemus to return home and offer him some of the cheese and lambs as gifts. Polyphemus, upon returning home, did not act as honorably. Instead of giving the men gifts, he locked them in his cave. Odysseus quickly thought up an ingenious plan to escape the cave by blinding the Cyclops and riding out tied to the bellies of the sheep, but he and his men were not able to take any of the cheese with them. The Cyclops' Sicilian descendents produce two main cheeses today: Ricotta Salata and Pecorino Siciliano. Both of these cheeses are produced from sheep's milk, just as Polyphemus' cheese was back in the days of Odysseus.

When Baxter told Ron Burgundy that he had eaten an entire wheel of cheese and pooped in the refrigerator, the legendary anchorman responded, "I'm not even mad. That's amazing." When I told my manager Jen that I ate an entire wheel of Brie in less than a day, she responded, "Wow, that sounds like a digestive nightmare."

I've never tasted any cheese produced outside of North America. I drink French wine and German beer, smoked Turkish cigarettes for a while, and make Russian caviar a part of my diet as often as possible. And I love cheese. I love cheese enough to write a long essay about it. So, why have I (and I'm assuming most of you who read this) never tasted the great European cheeses that I am writing about? The government. The FDA has strict guidelines on what foods can be imported. No foods that are produced from unpasteurized milk are allowed. The process of pasteurization involves, basically, the cooking of milk at about 160º for 15 seconds. In addition to killing off all the harmful bacteria, this process leaves the milk tasting cooked. Even the FDA admits that, "Pasteurization can affect the nutrient composition and flavor of foods." This change in the milk's taste is passed along to the cheese. Because of this, many small cheese makers refuse to use pasteurized milk because it alters the generations-old taste of their cheeses. None of their cheese can be legally imported. And those cheeses that can be imported face ridiculously high tariffs, usually from 40% to 90% but ranging as high as 300%, and are limited to specific amounts by quotas. The Harmonized Tariff Schedule outlining only the general import tariffs and quotas of dairy products alone published by the United States International Trade Commission is almost sixty pages long. In addition to these general requirements, there are additional tariffs and limits for specific countries. As a result of the quotas, demand for the limited amount of imported cheese raises prices, which is already expensive due to the higher costs of artisan production, international shipping, and tariffs. All of these factors lead to incredibly high prices that cannot be afforded by typical middle-class consumers. So chances are that you will only find one or two imported cheeses in your supermarket, if that. There are small shops that specialize in cheese but it is generally too expensive and inconvenient for anyone except cheese connoisseurs to shop there. As for the coveted raw-milk cheeses, illegal cheese smuggling is always an option. A man named Thomer has posted a simple beginner's guide to international cheese smuggling on the Internet, in which he offers several useful tips. Salon Travel offers a similar guide that gives three ways in which raw-milk cheeses can be obtained in the United States: flagrant smuggling, sketchy black market mail ordering firms, and from small shops that imported illegal raw milk cheeses "by-mistake." However, although these options offer a way to get quality artisan raw milk cheeses, they are illegal, and, therefore, even more expensive than the legal tariff-bombarded cheeses. So, if you really want to experience good cheese, you need to be willing to shell out a lot of money or move out of the States.

Oni, my Italian Greyhound puppy, has the parasite Giardia duodenalis living in his intestines. He probably got it from eating another dog's shit. It was causing some really messy diarrhea so I took him to the vet. After examining Oni, the vet gave me pills for him and explained how I could force them down his throat by massaging his neck with one hand while stuffing the pill into his mouth with the other. He made it sound simple, but I couldn't get it to work. So, I tried hiding the pills in hot dogs, then lunchmeat, and even bacon. Oni managed to eat all of these without swallowing any of the pills. Finally, I decided to switch to cheese. It worked. In the weeks to come, I conducted a couple taste tests and discovered that Oni likes mild Cheddar better than sharp Cheddar, Mozzarella, or Muenster. I never gave him processed American cheese, but I'm sure he would have hated it if I had.

There are some forces working within the United States to produce quality American cheeses. Although their cheeses are vastly different from European processors', they still try to uphold the quality of American cheese making. One of these is the Tillamook cheese co-op of Tillamook County, Oregon. Founded in 1909 by a local group of farmers, Tillamook today produces over 93 million pounds of cheese annually. They specialize in Cheddar, but also produce Swiss, Monterey Jack, Colby, and Colby Jack. Unlike many of the wonderful cheeses that you read about in cheese books, Tillamook's cheeses are actually accessible to American consumers. And, if you're ever in Oregon and bored, you can stop by their main factory and take a free tour. Several states also have milk advisory boards that oversee all dairy production, including, of course, cheese. California's Milk Advisory Board has been very active in promoting Californian cheese production and exportation. They are responsible for the huge, "It's the Cheese" ad campaign that began in 1995 and helped lead to a record-setting production of 1.8 billion pounds of cheese in the year 2003. The Milk Advisory Board has taken many steps to ensure that the colossal amount of cheese produced in that state is worthy of their quality seal. The seal reads "Real California Cheese" and was introduced in 1984 to help consumers recognize the cheese as a quality Californian product. To receive the seal, cheese makers have to follow a set of guidelines even stricter than the FDA's. For example, almost all California cheese is produced from milk less than 24 hours old and has only been transported short distances. Co-ops and advisory boards like these are very helpful in maintaining the quality of mass-produced cheeses, but at the same time, they make it difficult for cheese makers to do anything out of the ordinary to give their cheese unique characteristics. As a result, the billions of pounds of cheese produced each year in California, Tillamook, and similarly organized regions are almost always safe, fresh, and uniform in taste, but at the same time, they are bland, uninteresting, and uniform in taste.

So now that I have thoroughly convinced you that cheese is, in fact, the greatest substance on Earth, you may be asking yourself, "What is the next step?" Well, I can't necessarily answer this for you, but I can offer a few suggestions. First, become a member of the American Cheese Society. For only $75, you get a year's subscription to their newsletter, reduced registration fees at the Annual American Cheese Society Conference, and your name will be added to their member roster. Or, if you are willing to relocate to Pittsburgh, you could apply for the job of Cheese Manager at the Giant Eagle grocery chain. If you're lucky enough to get the job, you'd be making money and living your passion for cheese at the same time. If that doesn't appeal to you, perhaps you should consider working for the State of Wisconsin as a manager for the Dairy 2020 program. You'd make up to $50,000 a year and, again, be able to live and spread your passion for cheese.

My best friend and I were driving west along the Trans-Canada Highway on our way to Seattle from Calgary. We'd been in the car all day and, although the scenery was unbelievable, we were both getting tired of driving. Off to the right, we saw a huge yellow sign with "Cheese" printed in bold, capital letters. Naturally, we were curious. A few minutes later, we passed a sign that informs us that a cheese factory is less than a kilometer away, on the right. We stopped, our last stop before British Columbia, and pulled into the parking lot. The cheese factory was not large, but there were many cars in the parking lot. A few of the license plates said Alberta, Wild Rose Country, but most were from various states. We went in and saw a large window on our left. Behind it were men and machines working to process cheese. The cheese they make is for sale in refrigerated steel bins throughout the store. We wandered around a bit aimlessly looking at the variety of cheeses. There were hundreds of cheeses. Most were Cheddar or Monterey Jack with flavors like jalapeño added in. Suddenly I froze. I couldn't move. I saw behind the counter the most beautiful girl that I have ever seen. I nudged Matt and he saw her too. We meandered around the store for a while pretending to look at cheeses and sneaking looks at her as often as we could. Being in the middle of a 9,000-mile road trip, neither of us had much money for specialty cheeses, but we knew that we had to think of some way to talk to this girl. I picked up the nearest cheese to my hand, a tiny block of extra sharp cheddar that cost $8.00 and head up to the cash register. I thought of what to say while she rang the customer in front of me. The other customer left and I handed her the cheese. When she took it from my hand, she looked up, but I could barely make eye contact. She scanned the barcode, told me the total, and put the cheese in a yellow bag with the cheese factory's name printed in bold black letters on the front. I handed her the money, silent. She said, "Thank you," and handed me my change. I took it and the cheese and we left.