Not deferential enough: How food happens

Posted Wednesday, June 20, 2012 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: How food happens

by Gina Hamilton

A long time ago we used to listen to a radio show called "Now ... Nordine." You may not recognize the name, but you would absolutely recognize the voice. Ken Nordine is best known for another radio show called "Word Jazz," and that's still readily available, so if you haven't heard it, I recommend that you do. But Nordine was until recently probably the most recognizable voice in advertising, and many national brands used him to hawk their products.

We knew Ken Nordine, slightly, and would come to some of his live tapings, which he did in tiny venues around Chicago.

The show I remember best was a Thanksgiving show in which Ken Nordine asks a simple question: "Did you ever wonder how food ... came about?" His alter-ego whisper voice would respond, and so the show would go on. 

The issue then was turkey. What made someone think that turkey might be a good food to try? 

I had cause to wonder about cheese one day, as I was making a wheel of cheddar in the kitchen at Turning Tide Cottage. My husband, seeing how complex the process is, wondered aloud how anyone came up with the idea. "Or butter. How is it people decided to beat cream until it turned into a hard yellowish substance?"

The easy answer is that, of course, people had to try to preserve milk products since they wouldn't be able to consume them all when they were fresh, but that's the why, not the how. I can also readily understand how someone could accidentally make butter when trying to whip up a little cream to put on strawberries or something, but cheese is another story.

No one really knows how cheese started, as it turns out (for of course I had to look it up, once I had washed my hands, balanced several bricks on top of my cheese-clothed cheddar, and started the dishes). People assume it was a happy accident that occurred some 10,000 years ago, when someone carrying goat milk in a sheep's stomach (or something similar) ended up with a mass of curds and whey. But there are no records of cheese's discovery in antiquity, so it must have happened before written history. 

Cheese is made everywhere in the world where there are milkable mammals today, but before the Europeans started moving across the planet, it was confined to Europe, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and other locations in the Near East. It was virtually unknown in East Asia, most of Africa, North America, or South America.

Why didn't this happy accident happen everywhere people milked? Who knows? Why wasn't there llama or wildebeast cheese, for instance? Why didn't native Americans milk their mares? How is it that the knowledge wasn't passed from culture to culture at the borders, those great centers of learning where new information and understanding met and exchanged small tidbits of civilization? The Europeans had spaghetti before the Chinese had cheese ... why? The Chinese were certainly herding animals right along with Europeans.

Cheese would have been one of the things people took with them. It was already spoiled (well, in the literal sense) and couldn't be hurt by the sun or the heat or long storage.  It may have been a bit harder to carry the whey culture with them, but they knew how to make more, from the lining of a ruminant's stomach. It was peasant fare ... the poorest people could make cheese daily, and did. 

Making cheese connects us with those ancients, who, once they learned the mysteries of cheese, worked daily to preserve their hard-won milk through the hottest part of the summer and to provide a ready source of protein for the cold winter months to come. 

When our cheeses are caved and, later, eaten, we'll have joined that community of people, everywhere in the world, doing the same thing we are doing, an expression of our common humanity and an expression of our dependence on the animals who share our lives.

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