Archive for the 'Theology' Category

Curse Cheese, and Die

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

The Devil's Cheesewring, a strange rock formation in Cornwall; and a timeless symbol for England's past mistrust of cheese.

The Devil's Cheesewring, a strange rock formation in Cornwall, and timeless symbol of England's past mistrust of cheese.

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.)

Afraid of stupidity? Or stupidly superstitious?

Sor Juana: Afraid of stupidity? Or stupidly superstitious?

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

Quick everybody! Jesus' hurt!

Quick everybody! Jesus is hurt!

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

Daniel Defoe came for the Stilton, stayed for the cheese mites.

Daniel Defoe came for the Stilton, stayed for the cheese mites.

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.)

Advertisements

Lies, Incest, Heresy, and the Miracle of the Cheese Baby

Hast thou not poured me out like milk and curdled me like cheese? — Job 10:10

The Lord of Flies pours out his milk. Job weeps.

Blake's Lord of Flies pours out his sour milk. Blake's Job weeps.

I promised, emptily at the time, to write on how cheese is made. I probably owe such a post to any and all who want to, or are kind enough to, read my thoughts on cheese; it makes an essential preface to descriptions of specific varieties, of differences and similarities, of historical developments — which is why all the glossy cheese books begin with some summary of the cheesemaking process. I pointed you here, and do so again, because that page will tell you what you need to know, and I might not. But for my own purposes, here’s the After Cheese Comes Nothing narration of cheesemaking:

BABY CHEESE BECOMES A MAN, IS EATEN

When the time is right we warm Mother Milk’s belly over the fire till its all nice and toasty. The warmth and the care and the smiles make a little Cheese Baby start to grow inside the milky womb; but it’s just a strange disjointed Curd Colony at first, and it swims through a warm white sea of whey, gurgling and plashing, its many clumps scattered about — until the Curd Colony is ready to “evolve” into a firmer solid. To make that evolution happen we then drop into the whey sea in Mother Milk’s belly some Magic Rennet Juice from sweet baby cow guts or thistle flowers, and the Magic Juice makes our Curd Colony stiffen up nice and tight. We pull a plug to let the whey drain away, or squeeze it out with a hug; and then what’s left in the desiccate womb of Mother Milk but a puling white Cheese Baby hungry for salt! Salt it we do — then mold it according to our wishes, lock it in a cellar, and let it rot there in the damp dark till we’re ready to eat it. What’s left of Mother Milk we feed to the pigs.

CHEESE BABIES GREEK AND CHRISTIAN

Aristotle the Babbler teaches Alexander the Mass-Murderer.

Aristotle the Babbler teaches Alexander the Mass-Murderer.

The above Tale of Baby Cheese reverses (at least) one very real analogy with a very long history among cheesemaking people: the analogy of human conception to cheese creation. Aristotle (384-322 BC) offers the first recorded instance of the analogy; and from there its recurrence throughout European and Mediterranean realms might be attributable to Aristotle’s long influence, with Arabs as much as Christians; to an older current of popular lore that Aristotle merely tapped; or perhaps to Providence. Aristotle wrote the following (in his De Generatione Animalium, Bk. II, 739b, 22-31, for those of you eager to look it up and highlight your home copies):

When the material secreted by the female in the uterus has been fixed by the semen of the male (this acts in the same way as rennet acts upon milk, for rennet is a kind of milk containing vital heat, which brings into one mass and fixes the similar material, and the relation of the semen to the catamenia is the same, milk and catamenia being of the same nature) —

Reading Aristotle is always this tedious. Here’s another instance (Bk. I, 729a, 7-14):

what the male contributes to generation is the form and efficient cause, while the female contributes the material. In fact, as in the coagulation of milk, the milk being the material, the fig-juice or rennet is that which contains the curdling principle, so acts the secretion of the male, being divided into parts in the female.

Aristotle’s systematic inquiries contributed the fundamental groundwork for much scholastic philosophy; so it’s not surprising that the analogy of cheese and conception rears up again in the Middle Ages. None other than our favorite Blessed Hildegard of Bingen (see the prior post) repeats the comparison in her scientific writing (Cause et cure) — “at first, the semen inside the woman is milky. Then it coagulates, and afterwards it becomes flesh, just as milk first curdles and then becomes cheese” — and then she even elaborates on it in her visionary writing (Scivias), where:

1. St. Hildegard combines a lesson on cheesemaking with a moving argument against incest:

Milk that is cooked once or twice has not yet lost its flavor, but by the time it is coagulated and cooked the seventh or eighth time, it loses its qualities and does not have a pleasant taste except in case of necessity. [No doubt “necessity” has something to do with Lot and his daughters in the desert outside burning Sodom.]

Lots and his daughters spoiling thier cheese.

Lot and his daughters "overcooking the cheese."

and 2. The Sybil on the Rhine invents a cheese-parable to explain why some people are good and some are no good. As it is with coagulation, so it is with men; sometimes you get a wimpy curd, sometimes you get a wimpy man. Good thick curd (read “sperm”)

produces forceful men to whom are allotted gifts, both spiritual and carnal . . . And some had cheeses less firmly curdled, for in their feebleness they have seed imperfectly tempered and they raise offspring mostly stupid, feeble, and useless . . . And some was mixed with corruption . . . for the seed in that brew cannot be rightly raised . . . and makes misshapen men.

Tertullian, the Church Father of the 2nd-3rd c. AD, went so far as to compare The Greatest of All Births, that of Jesus Christ, to cheesemaking (in his work “On the Flesh of Christ”). While explaining the particular details of Mary’s immaculate conception, Tertullian suggests that the nascent Jesus was like some variety of perfect but un-rennetted curd. It’s hardly worth mention that Jesus-curds were still shapely and firm; divinely so, even without rennet — unlike the dribbly curds of the “stupid, feeble, and useless.”

Later in life Tertullian converted to a heretical Christian sect called the Montanists. The Montanists believed that contemporary prophecies carried on and even trumped the Apostolic tradition; that Montanist prophets actually inhabited the Divine Being in a temporary ecstatic union, rather than just speaking the Word like a holy parrot; that the Church should be more disciplinary with sinners and more disposed to deny redemption. And most importantly, St. Augustine & Co. accuse the Montanists of including cheese along with bread and wine in the Holy Communion. (Today we’re not quite sure whether the Artotyrites, who definitely ate cheese during church — horrid devils — were splintered-off from the main Montanist heresy.) Here’s Thomas Aquinas himself on why cheese doesn’t belong on the Lord’s Altar.

CHEESE BABIES BASQUE

Some of the above is drawn from an article by Sandra Ott called “Aristotle Among the Basques: The ‘Cheese Analogy’ of Conception” (some from Cristina Mazzoni’s book on female mystics and food; some I just found). Ott also recounts the story of a 14th century French priest who promises his concubine that he can provide an anti-rennet — an herb that will actually stop or reverse lactic coagulation — which he intends her to use as a contraceptive. But Ott’s main anthropological object is the Basque community of Sanite-Engráce, where an analogy much like Aristotle’s is still valid tender. There, conception is conceived as the interplay of two fertile bloods, the odol gorri or “red blood,” in the womb of the woman, and the odol xuri or “white blood,” in the semen of the man. The white blood curdles the red blood; so when a woman begins to bulge with child her acquaintances exclaim “You have have been curdled!” These Basques make two types of cheeses: soft household cheese and hard mountain cheese. The former is casual; the latter competitive. Male cheesemakers stake their masculine pride on the quality of their mountain cheeses. (Ironically, they’re dubbed etchekandere, “the woman of the house,” when it’s their turn for cheesemaking up in the summertime shepherd huts.) Good cheesemaking men are appraised as potent males, able to both cause and prevent pregnancy in their sexual partners. And the man’s mountain cheese is considered his niñi txipia, “little baby,” which he must care for as though it were a living infant: heedfully nurturing its bones (the rind), baptizing it with salt (as he also baptizes his truly human children), and coddling it with care so that its weak baby body doesn’t bruise and break.

Needless to say, the Basque people make incredible cheeses — and have done so for millennia. Sheep’s milk cheese primarily. One name you should look for in specialty cheese shops is Ossau-Iraty Brebis Pyrénées: a semi-firm and subtle cheese that is sweet, nutty, tangy, mellow, and creamy in exquisite balance. An old man I respect once told me I should kill for that cheese, or die for it, I don’t remember. Another possibly purchasable Basque cheese is Idiazábal: slightly smoked and firm with flavors of fruit and olive, butter and wood (originally smoked by “accident,” as it was aged in mountain huts that lacked chimneys). There are certainly others. But here’s a drawing:

A Basque shepherd molding his Baby Cheese in the perfect image of the Jesus Cheese

A Basque "housewife" molding his Baby Cheese in the image of the perfect, immaculately coagulated Jesus Cheese

Blessed Hildegard and the Profiling of Cheese

“Cheese without a rind is like a maiden without shame.” — Italian proverb

To prove that I’m serious, uncomfortably serious,* my first post-proper will take for its subjects two real, reeking, purchasable cheeses — one an Italian classic, the other an American fledgling. It will be my first entry into the “Cheese Profiles” category. It will head the magnificent parade to come. But first, a preface, and an epigraph for the nascent category — as I hope to plant epigraphs wherever I can —

Preface

My “Cheese Profiles,” god bless them, are intended to resemble those standard summaries that comprise most of the cheese-resources I’ve encountered: a few brief words about the cheese’s geographical and historical origin, a few more about the mode of production, then a visual description and some tasting notes. Usually there’s a picture. I’m not sure if mine will have pictures yet; but they will have everything else and more. I suppose there’s a spirit behind this practice that has something to do with contemporary “organic” movements and the notion that you might be better off, or healthier, or more ethical or self-actualized the more you know about what you eat. There’s also a spirit of cosmopolite connoisseurship budding in the States that honors the cultivation evident in wellspoken, knowledgeable diners. (Another day I’ll have to compare and contrast, in middleschool style, these sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating American food cultures, as they play out in places like fancy cheese shops.) At the very least, if you’re desperate for purpose, after reading “Cheese Profiles” you’ll have another means of drawing attention to yourself in conversation.

Instead of aligning myself with contemporaries of either camp, or with recent political trends (“It’s COOL to know your food”), I’d prefer today to take up with a perspective more anachronistic, an authority long dead and gone, somebody with that venerable contemptus mundi** that keeps me so cheerful. Today the explanation I’ll provide for writing any “Cheese Profile” at all — as though explanation were needed — will draw upon the Benedictine nun and mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) — aka Hildegardis Bingensis, Blessed Hildegard, Saint Hildegard, Sybil of the Rhine, Hildegard of Bingen — famous for her hymns and visions. In a letter to Daniel, Bishop of Prague, St. Hildegard once wrote,

“The voice of life and salvation says: Why will a person chew on a grape and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that grape?”

As everyone knows, Hildegard was writing typologically of the grape that Noah planted after the Deluge dried up — the grape that started the vineyard that led to Noah’s famed drunken nudity (Gen 9:18-27). There’s a lot of theological material there, and trust, gentle reader, that it rends my soul to skip over all the possible sermonizing*** and tedious digressing — but the principle stripped bare is all we need here; so I’ll shuffle to the punchline, taking the Voice of Life and Salvation for my own and asking,

“Why will a person eat of some cheese and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that cheese?”

That should be enough for an epigraph. End preface. (There will be more on St. Hildegard later, when I write about the age-old analogy between cheesemaking and babymaking.)

So I’ve digressed, unsalvageably. That promised post on Taleggio and Grayson will have to follow in the next installment.

* “That has been my disease. I was born grave as others syphilitic.”
** Please do examine that link, with sensitive attention to the chosen bible verse.
*** Go here to read Henry Smith’s late 16th C. sermon on Noah’s drunkenness, “a glass wherein all drunkards may behold their beastliness.”


Subscribe!

If you have something to share but don't want to comment, EMAIL ME at

aftercheese @ gmail.com

(spaces added to prevent spamming)

Archives