Cheese consumes all but itself. — Proverb.
In the universe of glossy cheese books, gourmet food shops, and “foodie” media, there’s plenty said and written against the industrial cheese complex that mass-produces rubbery mozzarella and rindless cheddar. It’s more rare that these critics acknowledge some of the indisputably positive influences our factories and our sciences have made on cheese production. I’ve suggested already that pasteurization, acidimeters, and standardized rennet extracts — to name a few examples — bolstered the cheesemaker’s reliability. An even earlier breakthrough was in 1669, when Johann Joachim Becher first distinguished between the processes of putrefaction and fermentation. They hadn’t figured that one out yet. As you might imagine, then, the likelihood was not insignificant before the 18th century that your cheese was dangerously foul, not delightfully pungent or “just overripe.” So I think the revulsion that some of our predecessors felt for pre-modern cheese deserves mention.
NASTY CHEESE AND THE POWERS OF DARKNESS
In much literature of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance (not all, and varying by country), cheese-in-general was considered an indigestible, unendurable, and generally abominable poison. Also, the unusual, mysterious processes of coagulation and fermentation gave cheesemaking a sort of sorcery-stigma in some areas. Perhaps there are early sources for this. I’ve found one: In his discussion of “What We Should Believe Concerning the Transformations Which Seem to Happen to Men Through the Art of Demons,” St. Augustine mentions an old Italian legend that certain wicked landladies enchanted their cheese, so that any traveler who ate it, expecting hospitality, would be transformed temporarily into a beast of burden, and forced into burdensome, beastly labor. This is hardly a threat today, but one can never be too safe, especially at Halloween-time. Never accept unwrapped cheese from strangers.
(I wonder if that whole legend isn’t a classist stab at the poor, who often ate cheese out of necessity and, surprise, labored. But I’m saving cheese class-issues for another post.)
On the indigestibility of cheese, there’s an old Suffolk ditty (very awkward, I’ll admit):
Those that made me were uncivil
They made me harder than the devil.
Knives won’t cut me, fire won’t sweat me,
Dogs bark at me, but can’t eat me.
Apparently, some people not only disliked and rejected cheese, but vehemently cursed it — even when it was popularly eaten and nutritionally necessary, not to mention economically indispensable (as in Holland, one of the most prominent early exporters of cheese). I could quote Shakespeare, but that would be tedious. In 1643, Johannes Petrus Lotichius wrote a treatise, De Casei Nequitia (On the Vileness of Cheese), that may epitomize this antagonism: he blames cheese for thousands of diseases, and pronounces color to be the only difference between cheese and common feces. He certainly didn’t receive many dinner invitations, talking like that. Lotichius may have been out of line; but even more moderate physicians tended to consider cheese unhealthy, negatively affecting the bodily humors and even the mind.
Combine cheese’s alleged invulnerability to fire, magical metamorphoses, general vileness, pestilential powers, and deleterious effects on the divine human mind, and you have a full-fledged, frighteningly potent Enemy of God.
How did the nun community react?
(I choose to talk about nuns because of a book I read called The Women in God’s Kitchen.)
A Mexican nun named Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (born Juana Ramirez de Asbaje, 1648-1695) loved the taste of cheese from her early childhood. Some are born tempted, but none are born sinners. Knowing, as it was known at the time, that cheese degraded the mind, poisoned reason, hindered learning, Sor Juana Inés in devotion to God gave up the beloved food forever. Like many monastics, she considered the pursuit of learning vital to her vocation on earth, in this life; therefore, although cheese might be delicious, that pleasure would only ensnare her in the World and stunt her spiritual growth, by making her stupider.
It was very brave of Sor Juana to give up cheese, and we are all very proud of her.
THE PASSION OF MARGARET MARY ALOCOQUE
Another nun of the same generation, on another continent, encountered the opposite test of faith. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690, French) is known by now for her vision of the Sacred Heart of Christ: the image of Jesus’ heart stuck with a crown of thorns. In these latter days, we can witness that vision on innumerable scented candles and tattooed bodies in any urban area — to everyone’s spiritual benefit — but in those times of horse-drawn wagons, a lady had to endure intense ascetic penance, prompting a once-in-a-lifetime mystical ecstasy, just to catch a moment’s glimpse. (Margaret Mary was not the first to bear witness to the thorn-crowned heart: the cult has roots in early Christianity. But she certainly served as instigator and icon for the modern movement, which was at first considered heretical, then approved, then became mainstream only after the 18th century.)
In tension with the trends of globalization and specialization that define our era, some people are adopting low-tech and do-it-yourself approaches to many of the problems that factories and alienated laborers have already “solved” for us. It’s a cottage industry of its own: How to do everything yourself (while keeping your continued reliance on the infrastructure of modern industry in the background, if that happens to hamper your moral pride). You can bake your own bread, make your own cheese, tune-up your own bicycle, sew your own clothes — can you have your own vision of the Sacred Heart of Christ? How did Margaret Mary do it? And how can we do it ourselves?
It may be impossible for all but God to define the causality involved in any Vision of God; but we do know that Margaret Mary sought hers through old fashioned spiritual trials. And we do know that one of her greatest spiritual trials was, believe it, the eating of cheese. Unlike Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Margaret Mary Alacoque loathed cheese with violent passion. (Maybe at the time they were making better cheese in Mexico than in France?) Her whole family loathed cheese. This hatred brought them together, no doubt; even when Mommy got grumpy or Daddy didn’t feel like talking, at least they could agree that cheese was disgusting. When Margaret Mary entered the nunnery, her brother insisted that her religious contract include a stipulation protecting her against unwilling consumption of cheese.
Margaret Mary Alacoque (looking her most contrite): “I will pledge my life to you, O Lord, to be thy humble wife and servant for the remainder of my days. But only if you keep your stinky French cheeses away from me.”
(God bunches his eyebrows, confused.)
Whether it was sorority-style hazing or genuine spiritual guidance, Margaret Mary’s superior did ask the young nun to eat cheese. It had to happen. A three day struggle internal ensued. What to do? With the eyes of God and all the holy choirs of angels, saints, unbaptized infants, and patriarchs on her, what could Margaret Mary do? Catherine of Siena drank down a bowl of pus to demonstrate her piety. Could Margaret Mary eat cheese?
After those three days of spiritual trial — her own temptation in the desert — Margaret Mary prayed for three or four hours, pleading for strength — her own Gethsemane.
Margaret Mary Alacoque (bleeding from every pore): “Lord, let this cheese pass from me.”
(God rubs his forehead, bemused, glances over at Jesus, who shrugs.)
And then, at last, she ate the cheese. And Satan wept.
(“Eat the cheese.” should become a new motivational motto. Child (perched on high-dive, crying): “I can’t do it mom! I’m really scared! I think I’m gonna get hurt!” Mother (on the deck, irritated, drinking from a hidden flask): “Oh shut up and eat the cheese!”)
The trial was as horrible as Margaret Mary imagined it would be, or so she claimed. Nevertheless — no: As a result, the future saint continued to eat cheese every day for eight years, in order to practice the Christian art of unconditional love. Epicurus be damned. (Jesus slaps his forehead and groans. God sighs.) Through these long years of suffering, Margaret Mary developed, in her own words, an “insatiable hunger for humiliations and mortifications, even though my natural sensitivity suffers from them intensely.” Still, there was a payoff — besides, in my mind, the daily cheese. Because of all the “pain,” her visions and ecstasies — the Lord’s graces, they were called — magnified and proliferated. Maybe we wouldn’t have our modern Cult of the Sacred Heart if Margaret Mary Alacoque hadn’t pulled up her socks, quit whining, and eaten the cheese.
And maybe you too can witness the Sacred Heart, if only you eat the cheese you loathe most.
THE BELL INN BRINGS DEATH TO THE DINNER TABLE
I have one more anecdote about disgusting premodern cheese that I’d like to share; and I’ll wriggle in a little history of a specific cheese.
Stilton (whose “home” is here) is one of the triumvirate of famous European blues, along with Roquefort and Gorgonzola. It’s much more modern than the others, however, first referred to as late as 1722 in William Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum. From there the record is twisted by legends and, probably, competitive lies. So here’s just one version of it. (I probably should have consulted this History of Stilton Cheese before I wrote; but a library can only give so much, and man is finite.)
Lady Beaumont of Quenby Hall, in the English Midlands, wrote down her housekeeper’s recipe for a uniquely stunning blue-veined cheese; and the cheese was a hit, soon marketed as Quenby Cheese, or Beaumont’s Cheese, to nearby towns like Stamford and Leicester. (If I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow, I’d find a map and look up the English geography.) This housekeeper, Elizabeth Scarbrow, had a daughter, Francis Pullet; and this Pullet worked at an inn owned by her kinsman, Cooper Thornhill; and Thornhill’s inn was called the Bell Inn; and the Bell Inn was in Stilton, where Pullet made a name for her mother’s blue cheese. There’s the connection, hence the name. The inn resided along the Great North Road and so had no trouble attracting business and making its signature cheese famous.
In 1772, the author Daniel Defoe stopped at the inn and wrote of the renowned wonder, the King of English Cheeses:
it is called our English Parmesan and brought to the table with mites so thick around it they bring a spoon for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.
If that’s not revolting, nothing is.
Some of you may have heard of a tradition in which port is poured over Stilton. Some of you may think this is Fine Dining in Old World Style. It is not — though it is Old World. The English used to pour port over Stilton in order to kill the mites and maggots that infested every wheel. Whether those English scraped those dead mites away or ate them with Defoe’s mite-spoon, I can’t say.
Next time you try Stilton, think of that. Think of maggots and rot; think of your cheese as a corpse. Next time you try Stilton, think of death.
(And this is my first attempt to explicate the cryptic proverb, “Cheese consumes all but itself.” There will be more.)