The Ecstasy of Cheese: To Dream, To Eat, To Worship, To Experience God

 How can you govern a country in which there are 246 kinds of cheese? Charles de Gaulle

Oh, Cheese How I love thee!  Besides its varied and great taste, cheese is valued for its portability, long life, and high content of fat, protein, calcium, and phosphorus.  Ok. I definitely value it for the protein and calcium. For those of you looking to get pregnant, cheese is also a fertility agent. It’s true.   My little boy wouldn’t be here without it!   How awesome would it be to be a cheesemonger (a specialist seller of cheese and not a Wisconsin tailgater)?  Almost every culture has some form of cheese (though still rarely considered a part of local ethnic cuisines outside Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas; yet “rushan” has been produced in China since the time of the Ming Dynasty).  The British Cheese Board claims that Britain has approximately 700 distinct local cheeses while France and Italy have perhaps 400 each. Some say there may even be about 1100 to 1400 different types of cheeses. Cheese initially came about because of happenstance, science and necessity. It was a way to preserve the nutritional values of milk for a longer time period in circumstances that may have been harsh. Such a historically important and prolific food source should be so idolized.

English writer Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-193) wisely observed, “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese”.  I find this exceedingly suspicious given that cheese is an awesome food in all its forms from gourmet to synthetic (technically speaking, I believe it is called “cheese product”).  One would expect a celebratory ode or two at least, given that human beings have been making cheese for at least 7000 years.  The ecstasy of cheese has religious significance in so far as important religious figures have been known to manifest in cheese.  For example, in 2004, Florida jewelry designer Diana Duyser sold a ten year old grilled cheese sandwich (with a bite out of it) that bore the image of the Virgin Mary to online casino for 28,000 U.S. dollars.  Lord Neminath, first cousin of Krishna and 22nd prophet of Jainism appeared in a tub of Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese.

Lest you think the appearance of important theological figures on food is a rarity, let me assure you, it is a familiar occurrence, one which our rationalist friends use as the prime example of a perceptual phenomenon called “pareidolia” or the all too human tendency to organize sensible patterns in otherwise senseless systems.  The distinction between outright hallucination and pareidolia has been discussed by psychologists for a fairly long time, well differentiated by Medical Superintendent of the District Asylum of Argyleshire John Sibbald in 1868 when he observed, “Those manifestations which have been hitherto termed illusions, are only in very small proportion actual delusions of the senses (partial hallucinations). For the most part they are pure delusions of the judgment, while a few are false judgments, founded on imperfect perception, or deceptions produced in the peripheral organs of sense and in external conditions. The nature of illusions consists of a falsification of the judgment, by the influence of passion, or the subjective tendency of the action of the intelligence” (RMPA, 1858, p.238).

Other food groups have tried to get in on the action.  Jesus and Mary appeared on a pancake.  Jesus made a solo appearance on a Marco Rubio’s tortilla in 1977 as well as a piece of toast, a hunk of chocolate, and a potato chip.  Mother Teresa was seen on a cinnamon bun.  Jesus was seen on a fish stick (aptly nicknamed, “The Son of Cod”).  But cheese should be the ultimate food source for religious sightings.  Do note that, in 1953, the Stresa Convention, ratified by France, Italy, Swiss, Austria, Scandinavia and Holland screened certain national sorts of cheese (Parmesan, Roquefort, Gorgonzola) from counterfeiting.

Cheese is a pretty weird thing when you think about it. Someone had to come up with the idea of taking a bunch of milk, adding bacteria, letting it basically go bad, and waiting to eat it until mold had grown on it.  Speaking of weird, scientists have long thought that cheese reproduced asexually. Yet, a very recent study (Ropars et al., 2012) found that a fungus has all the genes and mechanical bits that it would need for sex. In looking at Roquefort, the researchers found that P. roqueforti underwent more or less recent sex events (they specifically found signatures of repeat induced point mutations (RIP) in repeated sequences and transposable elements).  The conclusion of the scientists was that the induction of a sexual cycle would open the possibility of generating new genotypes that would be extremely useful to diversify cheese products.  Can you imagine even more cheeses out in the market?! What’s a girl to do?

Other odd bits about cheese? Limburger cheese is notorious for its strong and generally unpleasant odor. The bacteria known as brevibacterium linens causes this. It is also found on the human skin and is partially responsible for body odor.  Hmm. Does seem that at some points, cheese may be an acquired taste. The Chalet Cheese Cooperative, located in Monroe, Wisconsin, is the only maker of limburger cheese in North America today. On my road trip through Wisconsin, unfortunately, I did not make it there. Not too sure, however, I would have ordered the Limburger considering its association with body odor. Would you?

Going back to British author G. K. Chesterton who noted the lack of odes to cheese he managed to write a couple of essays on cheese, specifically on the absence of cheese in art. In one of his essays he recalls a time when he, by chance, visited a small town called Stilton. Apparently he felt very moved by Stilton and went on to write  Sonnet to a Stilton Cheese (note that Stilton is a type of English cheese, known for its characteristic very strong smell and taste)

Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour
And so thou art. Nor losest grace thereby;
England has need of thee, and so have I—
She is a Fen. Far as the eye can scour,
League after grassy league from Lincoln tower
To Stilton in the fields, she is a Fen.
Yet this high cheese, by choice of fenland men,
Like a tall green volcano rose in power.
Plain living and long drinking are no more,
And pure religion reading “Household Words”,
And sturdy manhood sitting still all day
Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core;
While my digestion, like the House of Lords,
The heaviest burdens on herself doth lay.

What Chesterton’s ode shows is that whatever type of cheese you fancy, be it Stilton, Gruyère, asiago, cheddar, or muenster, “you can be certain that there’s a good reason that that cheese originated in history when it did and where it did,” (Kindstedt).  The way that all politics are local; all cheeses are local and their odes are probably then embedded within the local cuisine and eateries.

For me, cheese is the one of the greatest inventions of all time.  No dinner party is complete without out.   No entrée would suffer from a sprinkle of cheese or a full on blob of it.  Mac and cheese is one of the best comfort foods ever.  Cheese can be nibbled on, slurped and bitten into.  It gives your teeth , mouth and overall senses a good workout.   Cheese can be a good way to tap into the supernatural and other-wordly religious experiences.  Cheese is the perfect texture for religious iconography –which is well evidenced by all the cheese-associated pareidolia.   Cheese contains tryptophan, an amino acid that has been found to relieve stress and induce sleep.  A 2005 survey carried out by the British Cheese Board found that Stilton cheese seemed to cause unusual dreams when eaten before sleep, with 75% of men and 85% of women experiencing “odd and vivid” dreams after eating a 20-gram serving of the cheese half an hour prior to sleeping.  Want a hallucinatory experience? Eat up some cheese at night.  Cheese is just all purpose type of food and for that deserves a million lyrical verses attesting to its magnificence.

A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be over sophisticated. Yet it remains, cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality.

 Clifton Fadiman (American writer and editor; New Yorker book reviewer, 1904-1999)




Royal Medico-psychological Association. The Journal of Mental Science. London, 1858



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