February 11, 2020

Wisdom from the Vat: The Making of American Beauty

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At the ripe age of 63, it bit me. After 30 years of impassioned work in trauma and sexuality, and immersion in a wonderfully satisfying if challenging world of healing, someone happened to give me a book. It was a beginners’ book about how to make cheese at home.

I have always loved cheese, enjoyed making my own wild yeast French Bread, and had a distant and vague interest in cheese making. For some reason I cracked the book and tried one of the simplest cheese recipes, and I was instantaneously hooked. Puzzling as this was to me, cheese rapidly coagulated into a consuming, even obsessive avocation. I found an unimagined joy in the complicated and endlessly challenging process, that began to overtake first my kitchen, then other rooms and my surprised mind. Even with a 50% failure rate at first, the fascination mushroomed on. My library of cheese books grew, and by 2018’s end devoted bookworm that I am, I had only read one book that year that was on another subject than cheese. Baffled by the delightful intrusion, I just went with it as I continue to do today. And everyone seems to love the cheese.

I have discovered that this ancient and multicultural art is rich with metaphor. As a couple’s therapist, I have been fierce about disallowing metaphor in teaching communication, as it confuses precise understanding with yet more subjectivity, But in this realm, the wisdom that steams forth is irresistible and invaluable. Thus this story.

My most beloved teacher is Gavin, a charismatic Australian man I discovered on YouTube. Prolific and generous with his didactic videos, I could learn from him on my own crazy sleep-defying schedule, and never exhaust his some 300 and ever growing library of recipes. He also offered a weekly livestream where people like me from all over the world shared questions and information. It amazed me that over two thousand years, around the globe, across cultures and time, people discovered this unlikely fact, that rotting milk turned into a delicious, nutritious and enduring food. Interestingly, it is primarily variations in cultures and time that make for the vast variety of different cheeses that are all made from the same one ingredient.

Gavin is a self-taught, “do it yourselfer,” environmentalist, very much the purist. Always outspoken about his disdain for processed cheese and his unsavory childhood memories of Kraft Singles, he politely but firmly refused the suggestion to try making American Cheese in spite of the occasional request from one among 160,000 YouTube followers. I echoed his sentiments. Even when a highly regarded community member named Larry talked poetically about his quest for the “perfect melt” and how nothing produces the widely loved grilled cheese sandwich like American, Gavin held firm. Of course I with my European parentage, agreed with Gavin. So one day we were all surprised to find that Larry had gotten him to do it, they had made a video together about how to make American Cheese. And since it was Gavin, of course it got my attention.

I learned from their video that the one ingredient that American Cheese has that traditional world cheeses do not, is Sodium Citrate, which is a combination of baking soda and lemon juice. That sounded relatively benign. Basically you grate any cheese you have lying around, add it to a solution of Sodium Citrate and Water, let the cheese melt and stir it together, and it is “emulsified” into the exquisitely meltable “cheese food” we all remember. Mildly interested but unmoved to try it, I soldiered on with the “real thing.”

Until some time later, I was struggling with my Shropshire Blue, a beautiful and intriguing cheddar with the addition of Roqueforti. After nearly three days of stubborn trouble shooting it persisted in refusing to cohere into the wheel promised by the recipe. It came out of the cheese press a defiant basket of orange and blue rocks.

Exhausted and discouraged, I threw them into a bowl. I did not want to throw them out, but what to do with a pound of un-aged blue and cheddar rocks?

After ruefully avoiding the obtrusive bowl for a day or two, I had a thought. Well, I could try making it into American Cheese. I hate waste and had nothing to lose. So I bought some Sodium Citrate and executed the quick and simple recipe. Stickler for the visuals, I poured the liquid into pretty molds, just for the fun of it, and left it to chill and set. The next morning I unmolded them, and was delighted. They had turned into this:

I proudly showed my husband, most proud of all at how I had somehow over-ruled old beliefs and tried something new even after a frustrating defeat. Being a practical guy, he wanted to put them to the test. So that night’s dinner was grilled cheese sandwiches. And lo and behold: we enjoyed a delicious and perfect melt.

Most remarkable of all, were the lasting lessons that came with me from this experience. First challenging old prejudices might yield surprising outcomes and even a changed mind. Secondly, like Cinderella, an apparently ugly step child can be in its essence something exquisite, desirable, and long sought after. Perhaps most powerful at all, there are no failures if we think in terms of transformation. And what a different world without the crippling fear of failure. Yes, there is loss but new beginnings are possible, if we are willing to try things. That is in fact what we are doing every day in the office. I named the cheese American Beauty.

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