If you only know one thing about me, know this: I’ve made cheese.
My mom sent me my very own cheese-making kit in the mail. This allowed her to give me a gift and simultaneously assign me a character-building chore.
After reading the directions, I learned that while it’s possible to make cheese with regular milk, it’s easier for cultures to develop when you make cheese with raw milk. So I went to a local farmer’s market to check out the dairy scene.
I approached the yogurt stand. “This guy knows his milk,” I reasoned. “He’ll point me in the right direction.”
“Do you know if any stands here sell raw milk?” I asked.
He shook his head and looked a little disgusted. Someone behind me piped up, “You can’t sell raw milk. It’s illegal.”
Yogurt man sniffed, shrugged, and then said nonchalantly: “I know a guy.”
“A guy?” My ears perked up and my secret tail wriggled.
“Yeah. I might be able to give you his number.”
“Oh, wow! I would really appreciate that.”
“His name is Biff,” the yogurt man said, getting out his phone. (Names have been changed to protect identities.)
“Oh, cool! I’ll tell him you referred me to him.”
“Don’t do that,” the yogurt man said. “He’ll kill me.”
It was then I knew I might be in over my head.
I texted Biff.
He texted me back, asking for my email.
Shortly thereafter I received a lengthy email, explaining how the milk drop-offs work, and what’s expected of customers: Keep your goddamn mouths shut. Don’t blab around town, don’t put this shit on social media. This is between you, Biff, and a cow. And the cow isn’t a fucking rat.
“Sounds good :)” I replied.
Next, I got a secret link. Then, I got to make a secret profile. In addition to raw milk, I could order eggs and produce. I added a dozen chicken eggs to my order. Several weeks later, I got an email that I should be ready for the drop-off.
Biff came in and closed the door. He had the panicked air that you would expect from a man with a van full of illegal milk on a hot summer day in Texas. I tried to do some secret journalism. “Do you find customers just by word of mouth?” I asked. He grinned, sheepishly. “Yeah, we’re under the radar.”
“And you have enough customers to get by?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, backing out of the room. No time to chat. He had more milk to deliver.
To my horror, the eggs were all different shapes, sizes, and colors.
Even worse, when I cracked one open, it was weird inside.
I screamed. This egg had almost no albumen. Its bloated, dark-orange yolk had a thick, mucousy membrane and a vibe that I can only describe as “fertilized.” “Naw dog,” I kept repeating, as I paced up and down my studio apartment, glancing nervously at the egg. “Naw dog. Naw.”
After a few moments of this, I threw that shit in the trash. I thought about chucking the remaining 11 of its demon brothers just to be safe, but then I remembered how much these eggs cost ($7).
I don’t have the right kind of pot to make cheese. I found a friend with the right kind of pot and used Ted Bundy-esque psychological manipulation to convince her she wanted to make cheese with me. At least, that was my initial plan. Winnie was shockingly on board with me compromising her kitchen for this pain-in-the-ass recipe. The girl loves her cheese! We read the 20-plus steps, donned aprons, and laid out the ingredients.
Immediately, the cheese lulled us into a false sense of security.
It was nice and coagulated, and the curds had reached the “texture of soft scrambled eggs” as the instructions read.
“Curds” are the milk-fat dream clouds, and “whey” is a yellowish liquid that remains.
When we reached the initial coagulation, we thought we had arrived. But as I pulled the curds to complete the last step, the mass got tougher and tougher. I bit into a sample curd and it squeaked so loudly I knew everything had gone horribly wrong. My eyes turned black with rage.
Was there a way to salvage this? Maybe it would turn into something if we melted it?
Winnie put a lump onto the pan, on the highest possible heat. It remained an uncooperative lump.
Luckily, I had accidentally bought a second gallon of milk. Praise be to my big cheese daddy in the sky. We made plans to try again.
This time, we approached the recipe with trepidation and humility. We measured out the citric acid and rennet as before. I put a little citric acid on my tongue. “Taste as you cook” I’ve heard some chefs say. “Except when it’s acid, you dingus,” they should have added. I thought I could feel it eating a hole in my tongue. I stuck my tongue out and demanded Winnie inspect it. “It looks fine,” she said, clearly disappointed in her choice of cheese wing woman.
When we reached the 17th step, with about 8 steps left, the cheese suddenly seemed to have just the seductive, melty stretch that we had failed to produce the first time around. The directions told us to keep adding hot whey and cold water, but the texture already seemed so right.
Winnie voted we go rogue. So we squeezed the curd into little cheese spheres. They were lumpy, but we loved them. Our babies.
The flavor was a little bland, but oh, so fresh. And, as Winnie pointed out, it “was definitely cheese.”
We took a moment to get some wine, artfully arrange some tomato on a plate, thinly slice a baguette, pluck some basil leaves, and pour some balsamic and olive oil onto our plate.
French accordion music from the Amelie soundtrack played in our heads. We started kissing the tips of our fingertips, like true chefs. We kissed our fingers until they were soaking wet, and beginning to prune from the nonstop exposure to moisture.
Ha ha ha! How we laughed at people who never made cheese before! HA!
We even invited our friend Amanda over so someone else could witness our glory. With our mouths still stuffed, we told Amanda everything we had been through. The terror of failure, the drama, the curds, the whey — our story had everything. “The cheese needed your fear,” she concluded, with wisdom beyond her years.
The cheese needed our fear. Her words echoed in my head as I drank more and more wine. It was so profound, like something you would find etched on an urn in Ancient Rome. “Caseus eget metus,” it would say, according to Google translate.
Years from now, when I have children, or more likely, Japanese holograms of cartoon babies, whenever they feel discouraged I’ll tell them, “Caseus eget metus.”
“あなたは何を酔っているの？” they’ll respond, according to Google translate.
“Caseus eget metus,” I’ll repeat, shaking my head and slicing a hunk of cheese that Winnie sent me from her now-famous Texas Cheese Emporium.
This all sound like fun???
You can buy the cheese-making kit I bought on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/listing/62518328/mozzarella-ricotta-diy-cheese-kit-8
Good f-ing luck.