“A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.” — Brillat-Savarin
BY WAY OF SUPERFLUOUS INTRODUCTION
Someday soon, I’m going to make some cheese of my own — and no doubt poison myself and my household. I’ve accumulated some equipment, I’ve bought a book, I’ve started practicing the maneuvers with low-intensity dairy products. My great dream is to make soft and stinky, monastery-style cheeses.
Here’s to big dreams.
Despite what the marketers will tell you, it looks like home cheesemaking is not going to be “easy”: it requires unusual hardware, unusual ingredients, time, practice, and assiduity. It might still be “fun.” We’ll see. But one can never be too wary when promised “fun” by strangers. Consider it — as you would the Mayan prophecies of a 2012 apocalypse: keep in mind the possibility, give it a contemplative frown — but don’t count on it.
CHEESE SLANG 1: HOW A WOMAN CAN “MAKE CHEESE” WITHOUT GETTING PREGNANT
But what if you don’t have the time, or the equipment, or even the desire; and you don’t live on a farm, and you’re not a professional cheesemaker, and neither are you parents — can you still “make cheese”?
Of course. Especially if you are an attractive and flirtatious young lady. (Don’t cringe: you don’t have to lactate.)
According to old British and American slang (1840s and 50s), there is a completely non-dairy process by which ladies can “make cheese,” which is to flare out your petticoats by twirling your skirts, then promptly and sweetly sit down so that everything poofs out nice and round — round like a wheel of cheese, I guess — and everybody sighs and smiles at your winsomeness. Some old people will sigh and smile in remembrance of how they once “made cheese” in their youth. And some old people will sigh and smile because the moment of frivolity reminds them how all things are not as morose and churlish as the bogwater of their own thoughts — not until one thinks about them, at least.
Make too much cheese, though, and the boys could see your ankles, or even a little fleshy leg when the skirt rises up; and we all know what that can lead to.
Fates worse than death.
And so it did. Over the span of generations, cheese slang progressed from cheerful “cheesemaking” to forms of exhibitionism and voyeurism no longer as innocent and lighthearted as a skirt-twirl. Soon men made an activity of leeringly “checking the cheese” — browsing the streets for cuties — and they shared their discoveries with mutterings like “Nice piece of cheese,” or “Tasty piece of cheddar.” (As we know, for some time Americans tended to equate cheese with cheddar.) Then, by World War time, it had all escalated (or descended) into vulgarity: from this seductively frolicksome making of cheese (the 19th century was so precious), came “cheesecake,” which referred to the morally catastrophic photographs of ladies in erotic, and even pornographic, poses, with little or no dress for a rind.*
TANGENT ON THE RISE, FALL, AND RESURGENCE OF ROMAN CHEESEMAKING, I.E. “CIVILIZATION”
And this is how cultures degrade into barbarism, some say.
Remember the Spanish proverb: “Cheese without a rind is like a maiden without shame.” A fallen maiden, that is.
As has been mentioned before, there is a certain sense, maybe a vague and inaccurate one, in which the whole Roman Empire Narrative of the West endows hard and/or ripened cheeses with the qualities of civilization, refinement, and learning (Rome), whereas soft and unaged cheeses evoke barbarian primitivism (everyone else) — until more recent centuries, at least. The Romans — especially after their conquest of Greece — made and ate a lot of cheese, of many varieties. Lucius Iunius Moderatus Columella (perhaps the Original Gentleman Farmer of the 1st c. AD) describes in De Rustica** a legion of common Roman cheeses, and documents the variety of methods by which they were made: some flavored, some unflavored, some smoked, some fresh, and many molded, pressed, and aged. It is suggested that the Romans invented the press-and-drain method of cheesemaking, as well as the process of ripening (look online here and here). I have some aversion to giving the Romans credit for everything they’re typically given credit for — just reactionary skepticism, probably. In any case, those Romans, busy-bodies that they were, significantly improved the methods of pressing and ripening.
At first cheese was a luxurious indulgence in Rome, but with all these technological innovations cheese became a common staple for common people, and was even carried as rations by the imperial armies. Roman styles of cheesemaking followed the spreading Empire all over the Western World; then colonies started developing their own styles, and sending them back to Rome; and everyone was happy in Europe, sharing recipes and complimenting each other, for a time. Then the Empire fell, for some reason or other, and the darkness of the Dark Ages encroached. The kind of “culture” Rome prized (most of which we still prize today) was lost on the barbarian marauders, who, once unyoked from the taming and civilizing rule of Rome, lacked the “cultivation” to carry on traditions. Every day was a new beginning for them. Or whatever. Among the lost classical arts, alongside all sorts of boring Latin rules of grammar, were Roman techniques for pressing and ripening cheese.
It was in the monasteries — at first in places like Ireland and England, then elsewhere — that Roman cheesemaking practices continued to persist and evolve; while outside those walls dirty irascible men reverted to making cream cheese in stone bowls, like stinking monkeys. Because everybody knows barbarians just don’t have the patience to ripen a good wheel. When missionaries brought the Good News back to the dark heart of the continent, building monasteries and cheering everyone up, they also returned the power to press, ripen, and otherwise perfect cheese (as discussed in this post).
And that’s how the world became the way it is today.
As you might sense, I’m aware and skeptical of the simplicity of this story; nevertheless, I’m doing what I can with the sources I can find. If anybody wants to pay me to research and write a history of cheese more thorough and definitive than those I’ve hit upon, I don’t require much. I might even do it for a few plane tickets and an unskilled house servant.
I didn’t intend such a lengthy and horrid tangent — but it had to happen sometime, heaven knows, because it involved the Romans, and the Romans always force their way in.
(This site says that the Greeks invented cheesecake long ago, and served it to their Olympic athletes at the world’s first games, in 776 BC. These athletes were buck naked the whole time, of course, just like those women in the more provocative “cheesecake” photos of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the Greeks didn’t have sugar back then, so their cheesecake doesn’t count.)
CHEESE SLANG 2: HOW A WOMAN CAN “MAKE CHEESE” BY GETTING PREGNANT
Back on topic.
I suppose that the modern freethinking man, with a little practice in the manipulation of a skirt, could “make cheese” as well as any woman. Not that his parents would be pleased; but there’s no reason to segregate these days. Still, there’s one style of cheese that no man can reproduce: the human style — insofar as baby-making can be and has been compared to cheesemaking, which I wrote about at length here.
CHEESE SLANG 3: HOW A WOMAN CAN “MAKE CHEESE” BY GETTING OLD AND SICK
Before abandoning this segment on sexist cheese slang, I must mention the less complimentary metaphors binding women to cheese. It’s been brought to my attention (thank you Ms. Walman) that “cottage cheese” connotes a few less enticing feminine features, like cellulite and yeast infection discharge. (I’ve also seen cottage cheese likened to baby vomit — which makes some sense if the babies themselves are likened to soft cheeses, their curds still mixed up with some whey –) Once again, it’s the soft and unripened cheeses that are wound up with ugliness. Before it was moral ugliness, this time its physical. Either way: typical barbarian traits. Maybe my ridiculous and incomplete analysis holds, at least on one strain of our “cultural history.”
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
Instead of spooling out another endless post, I’m going to put off the second half of my work on the subject of cheese-connotations-and-slang for another installment. So: The next post will feature a few bits on racial slurs, and a sermon on the shortcomings of the cheesemonger based on a passage from Kierkegaard.
* A lot of this information about slang I’m drawing from Stuar Berg Flexner’s wonderful Listening To America: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from our Lively and Splendid Past. I found this book in a strange second-hand shop in Mountain View, Arkansas, where my friend Adam and I had driven under no pretense but to see some woods and eat some “famous pie.” There also were groups of old friends playing country music and bluegrass on every corner of the town square at sunset. Maybe they were filming a movie, that’s all I can think of.
** I read some of the preface and other random snatches, and apparently They were already complaining back then about how the Earth was old and weary and gone barren (Columella didn’t agree). Just like now. Well, everything turned out okay for the Romans, didn’t it?