Friday, February 19, 2010

Life without cheese . . .

. . . is not worth living. At National Review’s Corner blog, Andrew Stuttaford quotes Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier today. Apparently, Pawlenty dismissed critics of the tea-party movement, including the Anti-Defamation League, I guess, as a “brie-eating” elite from “Ivy League schools” who sneer at “Sam‘s Club Republicans” who “actually like shopping at places like Wal-Mart.” Stuttaford concludes that the “guy’s a phony.”

What else can you expect from the governor of a state that produces cheese like this or this? I didn’t graduate from an Ivy League school, but if eating brie makes me an élitist, then élitist I am. The worst thing about being an Orthodox Jew, in fact, is the dismaying paucity of choice in cheese. Kosher cheeses are tasteless processed lumps of hardened milk. Oh, for a good wedge of gorgonzola or even, God save me, stilton.

Cheese may be man’s greatest invention ever—easily the best thing in life, with books running a very distant second—and it is a testament to just how much God demands of an Orthodox Jew that he must give it up. A commentator accuses of claiming that “there is only one way—yours [that is, mine]—to lead a legitimately Jewish life.” But the truth is exactly the reverse. My advice is to pursue a different kind of life altogether, and enjoy to the full humanity’s astonishing riches of cheese.

Update: Cheese, of course, is what is used to catch rats.

Update, II: Kosher cheese is so God awful because most Orthodox Jews have never tasted real cheese, entertain no sinful thoughts about it, and consequently there is no market for it. One day at the supermarket, shortly after my wife and I had joined the Orthodox shul, I ran into a friend who is FFB (“frum [pious, observant] from birth”). She asked how the adjustment to Orthodoxy was going. I complained about the sudden disappearance of cheese from our lives. I said something similar to the above: “Oh, for a good wedge of gorgonzola.” I pronounced the word to rhyme with rock-’n’-roller. My friend slapped her forehead. “That’s how you say it,” she cried: “I always thought it was gorgonzola”—as if the cheese were a prehistoric Japanese monster. Living in Orthodox circles, she had never heard it pronounced. There had never been any occasion to hear it pronounced.

Update, III: In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov says that “food is our chief link with the common chaos of matter rolling about us.” It is instructive to compare this remark to something similar said by Roth. Sex, he writes in The Human Stain, is “the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.” Could there be a clearer expression of the difference between these two great American novelists?


Anonymous said...

Indeed, cheese and dairy products in general are one of life's great goods, and it is a cruel fate that has made me semi-allergic to dairy products in all their deliciousness. Forever denied the joys of cheese, cream, and so on, i am alienated from life and therefore regard it as a ghost on the margins of the real, craving that which it can never enjoy.

That said i do occasionally eat cheese, it just makes me feel weird for hours aftewards.

Dwight said...

Always amusing to see people's preferences in cheese. While I don't completely agree with the saying that "a good cheese offends four out of the five senses", I have had some wonderful ones that do just that.

Chesterton may be right on poet's silence about cheese, but it may because cheese can adequately speak for itself.

Unknown said...

Brie cheese has been a part of my life since childhood, since my mother was French (not, obviously, that that is a requirement for eating Brie!), and I adore it.

Naturally, it also happens to be one of the most calorically high and fat-laden cheeses, but I suppose that's why it tastes so good.

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

What goes into making a cheese Kosher? Does the milk have to come from a certain animal--or rather more importantly not from a certain animal. I know a great deal about the dietary restrictions Kosher guides one to; however, I was unaware of this particular law. (I ask so as not to offend the next time I have or bring something to one of my get-togethers.) Does it have a Kosher or a Pareve marking on it so I'll recognize it when I see it. Or, like brie are there some that are known to be Kosher and others that never can be?

Please elaborate because this is one of the more interesting things I've learned recently. Thanks for any help you can give.



D. G. Myers said...

A pretty good explanation is here.

Jonathan said...

The explanatory article you linked to seems to hold out some hope for the Orthodox lover of cheese.

If the Cheese is made by a Jewish Cheesemaker in a suitably cleaned dairy it seems to be acceptable.

I suppose the difficulty comes in finding such a dairy?

D. G. Myers said...

As I say, the problem is the market. There is none.

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

Thank you so much, that was indeed helpful and informative.

Not being a scholar of the matter, I found this reference also interesting:

"Although the Talmud offers various reasons for this prohibition, most halachic authorities maintain that the ban was made because of the use of rennet in cheese making. Since rennet was traditionally derived from the lining of a calf ’s stomach, Chazal forbade non-Jewish cheeses because of the likelihood that they contained rennet from calves that had not been slaughtered in accordance with halachah."

It would seem that this difficulty would also entail another more common breach which also applies to eating a sandwich with both meat and cheese--"Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk" given the combination of the flesh and the milk here, it would seem to violate kosher on at least two counts.

Later the Rabbi quoted notes:

There is no halachic problem with using animal-derived enzymes in cheese [mixing meat and milk] since the amounts used are miniscule.

However earlier he said:

"A product containing a minuscule amount of a non-kosher ingredient is often regarded as kosher, as the non-kosher substance is batel, or nullified. However, rennet used in hard cheese cannot be batel because of the halachic axiom that a non-kosher ingredient that gives a product its form—called a davar hama’amid—is never nullified (Yoreh Deah 87:11)."

If this latter statement is true, it strikes me that the former cannot also be true unless some other law intervenes. On the other hand, the ingredient itself-- the rennet is Kosher, it is the mixture of the rennet and the milk that violates halachah and maybe does not.

And now you know why, long ago, when I considered, very seriously taking up the Jewish faith (and I could only have done so as an Orthodox Jew--there's no point in doing things by halves), I failed to do so. I get turned around and confused in the complexity that is halachah. I respect it, and I suppose, had I not been so young at the time I would have bowed to the same wisdom that allows me now to be a good Catholic and that would be to take the advise and understanding of those steeped in the understanding of tradition. But God's grace leads as it will and I suppose that I was not called to the Jewish faith.

More's the pity for me--but God is good and I found a home.

Any way, thank you so much for this very interesting discussion--I appreciate you citing the source and I will have hours of fun trying to come to terms with the reasoning. Which probably can't be done outside the context of thw hole. But, one must try.



Jonathan said...

Yesterday, an article in the local paper discussed the growth of kosher food consumption - especially among populations not Jewish. Perhaps then, there will someday be a market for quality, kosher cheese.

Hope all is well,