IMMORTAL MILK: Adventures in Cheese
by Eric LeMay
A Q&A with Eric and Chuck
Why do small town plumbers, supermodels, soccer moms, Washington power brokers, Parisians, Wisconsinites, teething toddlers, and just about everybody who loves food love cheese?
Eric: It’s the primal taste, the first flavor. Milk is the food that greets us and feeds us when we enter the world. Cheese says, “I’m alive! Let’s eat.”
Chuck: Cheese also holds a lot of life inside it, from the sun that feeds the grass to the grass that feeds the cows to the milk that feeds us in cheese, to the microorganisms that give cheese its flavor. All that life makes it a celebration.
Eric: Like Mardi Gras.
Chuck: Well, at least that’s how cheese is greeted in our house: brass band, parade, tipsiness.
Eric: Cheese is worth popping a cork over. At its best, it captures a place and a mood, a people and a history. Eat a fresh goat cheese from your local farmer’s market, and you’re tasting flavors that come from the fields where you live. You’re rooting yourself in your unique patch of the earth while embracing a tradition that goes back about 8,000 years. It’s wonderful.
Chuck: And gross. You’re also eating rot.
Eric: That’s true. Gross as it may sound, cheese is essentially rotting milk.
Chuck: Wonderfully gross!
Eric: “Controlled spoilage” is what celebrity monger Steve Jenkins calls it, and that rotting process is what brings out its flavors. Somewhere between its start as milk and its end in rot, cheese peaks. Sometimes that involves a happy hint of mold. Other times, like with a Limburger or Livarot, it involves a sinus-punishing reek that can peel the skin off your eyeballs. Rot is the other great truth of cheese: It tastes of life, yes, but it also tastes of death. In a bite of cheese, you get the whole human drama.
Chuck: Plus it’s yummy. Don’t forget it’s yummy.
Eric: Wonderfully grossly yummy.
What if you enjoy a hunk of sunny Cheddar as much anyone, but find the endless varieties of chèvre and brie and Gouda and whatever else all those other cheese are in the cheese section a little overwhelming—and are you supposed to eat the rind?
Eric: It’s true. The wide world of cheese can seem daunting.
Chuck: I admit I can get overwhelmed by it, so let me be the first to say: Don’t worry.
Eric: That’s right. Don’t worry. Even in its stranger shapes, cheese is almost always friendly. Sure, there are a few grumps out there.
Chuck: For instance: Morbier, a French mountain cheese, is something of a crotchety old man.
Eric: And Humbolt Fogg, which is an absolutely gorgeous American cheese, hides a salty snarl.
Chuck: But most cheese wants to please you. And you know, sometimes you’re even in the mood for a crotchety cheese, or a snarl.
Eric: If you find the sheer variety of cheeses overwhelming, think of all those unknown cheeses as adventures awaiting you. That’s the subtitle of the book—Adventures in Cheese. It invites readers, like dairy-oriented Lewis and Clarks, to set off into the goat fields, into the dairies and cheese caves and cheese shops and festivals, to explore the world of cheese and meet new cheeses along the way. Reader, meet Comté.
Chuck: Trust us, you definitely want to meet Comté.
Eric: Meet Square Cheese. Meet Caciocavallo Podolico. Meet a 7,000 pound, mammoth cheese that inspired the worst poem in the English language.
Chuck: “We have seen thee, queen of cheese, lying quietly at your ease . . .”
Eric: All you need is an enthusiasm for cheese. And you’ll never again worry about whether or not to eat the rind.
Chuck: Can I spoil the suspense? You almost always do.
I just did something cheesy. Does that make me cheesy? Is that a bad thing? What if my friends find out? And just what does cheesy have to do with cheese anyway?
Chuck: If you feel cheesy, know that you aren’t alone.
Eric: Odds are your friends have their own brand of cheesiness. Your family and coworkers too.
Chuck: Just try humming a showtune and see if they don’t hum along—that usually works in my circle. I think everyone is happier when we embrace our collective cheesiness.
Eric: Yes, cheesiness isn’t nearly as bad as it seems when we suddenly find ourselves weeping at a Kodak moment or bobbing out heads to an a cappella version of “Funky Town.” It’s harmless, except to any belief we might have that we’re cool. The full story behind cheesiness involves American food production during World War II, Hallmark slogans and hits like “Sentimental Journey,” as well as those emotions that well up in us, despite out desire to control them. Cheesiness may not be fair to cheese, but it’s nothing to fear.
Chuck: To be fair to cheese, I’d say only squirt and spray cheese are cheesy.
Eric: And string cheese.
Chuck: True. But not a book about cheese.
Eric: No, a book about cheese is absolutely, without a doubt, not at all, no way, no how, cheesy.
Free Press, June 2010
Hardcover, 256 pages