It All Started with Milk and Rennet

When I started writing this blog, my son recommended that I shoot for a Scott Adams-level of snark (which may explain the noticeable male skew of the readership). However, today I want to try to emulate Richard Armour, my first (and possibly still) favorite humorist. He did his writing in the 1960’s and 1970’s, pre-irony and pre-snark, but it is still very clever. If there are any fans reading this, you may notice the title bears some resemblance to the titles of many of his books (It All Started with Stones and Clubs, It All Started with Hippocrates, It All Started with Eve, etc.)

Way back in time, actually before time if you use recorded history, some guy in a hot climate (we’ll call him Joe) was looking for a way to transport his milk (actually it probably came from a goat or a sheep).  Looking around, Joe realized that the thing he carried his water in would probably work for milk too. That thing was the stomach of an early cow relative. Fortunately, he had several loose ruminant organs lying around, being the Tupperware of their day. So he picked up a cow stomach, poured in the milk and went on his way to visit his hunting buddy, Eddie.

Having been quite a hike to Eddie’s over rough ground, the milk had spent a while sloshing around in the stomach. When Joe got to Eddie’s, he offered to share the milk. Imagine his surprise when he tried to pour it out and some mushy, whitish curds came out of the stomach instead. Joe looked at the mess and told Eddie to try it. Eddie, being a suspicious sort, told Joe to try it himself. Joe took a little and put it into his mouth. It tasted good! Joe had just discovered cheese.

Cheese was really the only way to keep milk in a hot climate. So why did the cow’s stomach allow the early civilizations to enjoy cheese instead of food poisoning? The magic ingredient of rennet. Rennet is a bunch of enzymes produced in any mammalian stomach (yes, we could use your stomach to make cheese, but you would probably rather keep it where it is). The enzymes cause the milk to separate into curds and whey. The curds are the cheese, the whey is what made Joe’s first cheese so mushy.

Concurrently, an ancient housewife was trying to figure out what to do with the milk that had gone bad in the sun and curdled. The saber-tooth tiger kitten walked away from it. She tried feeding it to her teen-age son, thinking that he would eat anything, but he refused. Finally she decided to add salt. Well, it covered the taste of the curdling. But it was just nasty to drink. So she pressed it between two rocks and, voila!, she discovered cheese. (I do not know why this would make it more palatable except it may have added the taste of the rock.)

The early cheese was a success nutrition-wise (or in contemporary thinking, it beat starving). But it was REALLY salty to last in the hot sun, and it was sour due to the curdling. Fortunately for us, cheese-making was also done in Europe, where it was much cooler. So they used less salt. Less salt meant more microbes and molds (yummy). If you don’t worry about moldy cheese, you can let it age (it gets better and better, doesn’t it?) As time progressed, the mold was cut off some cheeses (e.g., cheddar) and incorporated into others (e.g., bleu). There’s a British-French joke there somewhere, but I can’t find it.

Cheese making was pretty much a universal art (except in the orient – apparently they did not see the sense in eating salty, curdled, moldy milk). Without good transportation, most cheese-making remained local until recently (apparently cow stomachs have their limits when it comes to transporting cheese). Britain claims to have over 700 distinct varieties, France and Italy each claim over 400.

Fast-forward a few thousand years. Switzerland opened the first cheese factory in 1815 (making Swiss cheese?) But the Americans managed to turn it into an assembly-line process in 1851. A sweat-shop for cheese just sounds disgusting.

Moving forward, the scientists figured out how to mass-produce rennet in the 1860s and cows everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. By the turn of the century, those hard-working scientists had created pure microbial cultures which led to more standardized cheese – good for the manufacturer’s bottom line, not so good for the discerning diner.

And guess what standardized cheese led to? Processed cheese!! (aka process cheese, cheese slice, prepared cheese, cheese singles, and cheese food). Processed cheese is a food product made from “normal” cheese, emulsifiers (for smoothness in melting), extra salt (it’s back), food colorings, and flavors. They might also throw in some other unfermented dairy ingredients (I guess the dairy equivalent of animal by-product) or whey. I checked today, and cheese culture was the ninth ingredient in one brand of cheese slices.

Today more processed cheese is sold than “real” cheese. It’s lasts longer, doesn’t separate when melted, and is more uniform in look and taste. Joe and the housewife had no idea what they started.

*Information in this post is loosely based on an article in Wikipedia. So please don’t take any of it as fact.

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