After a brief surge in popularity a few years ago, cheese made from human milk sort of vanished from existence. While marginally curious, I assumed that I would never encounter it in my lifetime. I must have read a dozen articles on it being served in a few higher profile restaurants before the Health Department banned it. This was followed by Miriam Simun’s Lady Cheese Shop project. In essence, it was a week long gallery event where people could come in and taste cheeses made from the milk of New York’s finest (and perhaps most unoccupied) socialites. I believe the intent was to encourage people to think about how we obtain food and where it comes from while also offering an unparalleled dining experience for rich weirdos. The cheeses were served up with an assortment of garnishes and sometimes served on artisan breads or beside chocolate. Each offering came with chef’s notes, a completed dietary questionnaire from the milk’s producer, and even lab results on that person’s blood work. It was a high profile, creative, controversial, and culinary hit. But I had not heard much on the subject since, probably because the novelty had worn off.
Fast forward roughly eighteen months and I finally found myself standing before of a tray of some poor woman’s warm ricotta. I had been invited out to a gallery opening celebrating the cycle of life and had been promised that there would be free drinks. The event was held in Brooklyn at a four story walk-up belonging to three young men with beards and potentially rich parents. They converted the space into a venue for artists and musicians semi-regularly and tonight the walls were adorned with photographs of afterbirth, stillborn infants, sexual intercourse, and paintings of the female form. I saw a few fertility sculptures and one terrarium that I thought might have been a display but I couldn’t be sure. I decided that, if it were my piece, I’d have filled it with tadpoles and hardboiled eggs. But not everyone possesses the same creative intuitions that I have been blessed with.
I wandered around for a while and had some wine before being confronted by a woman holding a platter. She smiled and said, “Breast milk cheese?”
There was none of the pageantry or perceived classiness that I had expected. There was no documentation, no lab results, and not a chef’s hat in sight. But I wasn’t in some fancy Manhattan gallery specifically designed to appeal to bored millionaires either. I made direct eye contact with her and understood instantly that this wasn’t just any cheese, it was her cheese and that refusing it would be the ultimate dishonor. Glancing down, it looked like someone had tossed several lumps of sweaty white dough in the center of a tray and emptied out a sleeve of soda crackers next to it. There was also a handwritten note card indicating that this was indeed “Breast Milk Cheese.”
I was completely taken off guard so my response was a brief chuckle proceeded by, “Jesus. Yeah, I guess so.”
Reaching for it, my initial feelings were of mild terror and light queasiness. It felt illegal, like being offered tiger meat or something. I have eaten almost every bizarre and disgusting type of food available in this country without ever batting so much as an eyelash but, for some reason, this felt different. Imagine someone was offering you heroin for the first time and you thought the needle might be dirty. That’s sort of how I felt. My brain understood that you have to super-heat milk to make cheese, so any AIDS that she might have had would have been burned off in the process. However, there was still a part of me that screamed out not to put this lump of person cream into my body. It was too damn personal. She was standing right in front of me, waiting for me to wolf it down. I stalled by asking a few questions about how it was seasoned. I learned that a little vinegar and a pinch of salt were the only non-boob-centric ingredients.
Thankfully she became distracted by some newcomers and walked over to them before a weird amount of time elapsed prior to my sampling of the cheese. With the the pressure off, I waited for the fear to subside before eating it because I genuinely wanted to know what it tasted like. Like most things you’ve built up in your mind, it was sort of bland, a little sweet, and smelled like your average fromage. It was basically the same as most fresh cheeses I’ve had. Throughout the course of the night I watched a young woman almost cry while another gentleman went back for seconds.
It was a very hip and predominantly younger scene. Everyone ignored the pieces or discussed them without involving politics, society, or art history. Most conversations centered around people I had never heard of or bands that I didn’t know enough about. Nobody really had anything to say. Even most of the artists appeared to have made things without any real intent or foresight. So, after a single pass, I wrangled a cat to pet and followed the cheese tray with my eyes. Three drinks and two hours later, I found myself back at home looking inside of the refrigerator for a late night snack. All I had were a couple of apples and enough shredded gouda to make a quesadilla.
I had the apple.
It’s fucking weird to eat something made from another life form that can speak to you and struggles to pay it’s rent.
I don’t think making a value judgement (weird) is fair. Weird is different for each individual. As long as no people were harmed in the making of said cheese :)
So much of this post made me laugh. The cartoon alone brought tears to my eyes. This though, is the top tickler of ribs for me – “Jesus. Yeah, I guess so.”
Very, very funny.
Thanks for that. – sonmicloud.
Well done you for trying it. I too would find it hard to eat but isn’t it more strange that we eat the body fluid of another species altogether? Yet no-one thinks this strange. It is just cultural squeamishness.
Reminds me: I had a nightmare that Dolly Parton was my mother – and I was a bottle baby!!! :)
Jokes aside, I don’t know if I could have been put off by human cheese as I love cheese in all its forms and have a daily portion of Mexicana chilli cheese on toast with tomato.
I guess it’s down to the individual, but given the choice I’d probably have gone for it! :)
This was very funny. And it is weird. Or not so much weird but a sad attempt to occupy a margin in the hopes of being viewed as different or unique or interesting. It is a cynical way for a person, who likely has no real creative ability, to conduct their life. But this makes for funny reading so thank goodness for these sad bunnies.
Awesome. I love this post. I remember joking with a friend about the breast milk cheese. Sadly its the vinegar that would give me pause.
Perhaps I’m over-thinking this, but if someone milked themselves, made some cheese, and then ate it…would it go against the principles of vegan-ism?
I’m vegan – mostly – and I don’t think it would go against the philosophy of veganism, provided no humans were harmed in the extraction :-)
Especially if the extraction was from one’s self…right? Wow, never saw this topic coming up in my life, EVER! :-)
I felt anxiety reading this… people food products for people. EEK!
Great post. Definitely food for thought. Is this one step away from cannibalism, or is that just meat? Makes you wonder about the crackers and possibly pate.
Ultimate dishonor or not, I would have given her a hearty NO THANK YOU. I might have even thrown in an ARE YOU NUTS? Because us broke-ass, un-sophisticates are crass like that.
I ate camel meat in a restaurant in Astoria, Queens once. It was rank. Not that I’m comparing breast milk cheese to camel meat. Because I’m not.
My tummy is turning at the thought. Just because we can do it, just because we have the cheese-making skills, does that mean we should do it? Ugh. People are so weird.
Unless I knew the cheese was processed according to some official cheese-making rules, I think I would be concerned about the possibility of contracting some disease too. I’ve wondered the same thing about people who order breast milk over the internet for their babies too. I doubt it’s all USDA-approved. No, thanks!
I guess you no longer a common man. Perhaps you never were.
This was an awesome article. I have never heard of human cheese before but can’t say I’m surprised. Love it!
Sounds like a very surreal experience…
I can only enjoy this piece having convinced myself it cannot possibly be true.
Crazy…What the hell? One has to be pretty desperate to milk oneself to make cheese out of it. Who does the milking? Is it like a self-milking experience or is there like a human farmer that pulls up a stool? Funny post?
What does one do here if they fear their comment is not intelligent enough? I wonder, will you let me slide? This is my first time perusing your blog so maybe you’ll go easy. Your wit, candor and humor are disarming to say the least. Now about this titular post – as a woman, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would’ve had the same visceral reaction – it’s curious, because I’m honestly not sure. I think I would’ve been a tad nervous for sure. The ‘artesque’ environment would have made bohemian cheese refusal a bit more difficult. But then, there are so many egregious items in the ‘normal’ food we eat. FDA percentages allow so many bug parts, human hairs…and all that other yummy stuff. I hopefully would’ve recalled this data to marshall my inner cheese courage. I’ve eaten so many bug parts, what could someone else’s breast cheese possibly do.
Great post – most entertaining.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to read the book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma or not. If you haven’t you might want to check it out. It’s fascinating, terrifying and in between the rest of the pages it’s just plain depressing.