My Food Lineage
by Sarah Chapman
It's only cheese, yes, but it’s a shared moment, a remembered flavor, a moment appreciating the process of the controlled spoilage of milk with people I love.
It’s the early 80s and my parents live in a 4th floor walkup in Park Slope. The economic bubble is growing happily. My mom is a social worker and my dad heads a department in an ESL publishing house. Through a combination of luck and privilege, he finds himself in a financially comfortable management and sales role which he doesn’t like at all. The job does, however, send him to conferences selling books to language schools internationally. My mom comes along for some of the trips, and on a trip to Norway she discovers Gjetost. What is this caramelized peanut buttery brown block of heaven, she wonders? Can I get it in Brooklyn? (Yes, she finds out later, in a few places. Zabar’s has it, too).
That was the beginning of the end for my mom, cheese-wise. But let’s jump back, briefly, one more generation. My mother’s mother immigrated from Lodz, Poland to the Bronx at 13 (a year after the rest of her family, but that’s another story) and was surprisingly open to "foreign" foods. In the 50s, she took the bus to the Asian supermarket to buy tofu when tofu wasn’t a thing yet. She took another bus in the other direction to buy yucca and prepared it in different ways until she figured out she liked it most when steamed and mashed. She passed down not necessarily the ability to cook delicious food for a crowd (like we believe all grandmothers can), but an interest in unfamiliar foods. Unfortunately, she also passed down a conception of healthy food as low fat and never fried.
My sister was born a few years after that formative trip to Norway, with my dad’s straight hair and depressive tendencies. I came four years after that, with my mom’s almost identical face, curly hair (thank God, she thought) and taste in food.
It’s early fall and my family drives Upstate for the day. We’ll go apple picking later, and eat amazing apple cider donuts, but first we go rock hopping on a favorite trail. We take a lunch break at the picnic tables near the brook. At this point, my 6-year-old sister eats mashed potatoes, cooked carrots, and blueberry yogurt almost exclusively. Today she has a peanut butter sandwich. My mom packed me a granny smith and Morbier sandwich (my current favorite) while actively constructing her narrative of me. “Morbier,” she tells a friend. “She’s only two!” I happily munch on the sandwich when I’m not nimbly climbing on rocks and racing my new friends.
“Let’s have a dinner party!” my best friend exclaims. I’m a sophomore in high school, and we want to play adult dinner party hosts. We invite six of our friends over and split up cooking the dishes. She chooses a chicken recipe, and I land on a roquefort pasta dish. I don’t completely understand when she tells me the cheese is too strong.
I’ve graduated from college and am living in Chicago. I’m babysitting—bored with it—and drinking a little too much. My dear friend from college, Micah, is living in India, saving the world volunteering on an heirloom seed saving farm. “Let’s go on an adventure!” he says. He’s running out of money and is planning to come back to the states anyway. He’ll learn more about biodynamic farming and I’ll learn to make cheese.
Six months later, I’m back in New Jersey and my friend will arrive in a few days. In the meantime, I’ve decided to go full hippie, growing out my lip and leg hair, because I’m a farmer now! I don’t care about societal conventions! We have a rideshare lined up to Asheville, NC, and we’re ready to embark on an adventure to learn about cheese. We don’t have a car.
Did you know working on a farm is hard?
Micah and I arrive in Portland, OR two or so months later. He has an old friend there we’re staying with, and I have access to a laptop. I’ve connected with an amazing cheesemaker, and I’m going to work as an assistant cheesemaker for a month. No, I don’t have a car, I say. He suggests I camp in a local campground, but I don’t have a tent. So he puts me up for the month in his wife’s ex-husband’s house. I have a large house to myself, no companions save the goats, and a 25-minute bike ride to the farm each morning just in time for the morning milking.
A month later, I’ve decided I don’t want to be a cheesemaker. But after idealizing and obsessing over cheese my whole life, I have a greater understanding of what’s really involved. Making cheese is a constant tireless labor of love and a painstaking science. All creativity is within the parameters of precise experimentation and extreme cleanliness. I can’t romanticize the process anymore, but I can appreciate it more deeply with a respect for every step of the process. I return to New York and get a job in retail which teaches me more about European and American cheeses than I ever thought possible.
Years passed and much has changed. My parents have divorced, and my father has passed away. My mom has found the love of her life, her long term boyfriend whom I call my stepfather. My mom, the almost-vegetarian, found herself an unabashed pork and beef loving man. Chip beef is something he looks back on with longing instead of disgust. He is also in long term treatment for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. This has altered his sense of taste and, at times destroyed his appetite. Many of his longtime favorite foods aren't interesting to him anymore, and it took months after one particularly difficult treatment for his taste buds to slowly creep back.
During the trial and error period, after a particularly intense treatment cycle, I discover a cheese he will rarely say no to. The salty-sweet flavor is remarkably consistent to his palette and the high fat content is satisfying when other foods taste off or barely discernible. Every time I go to visit, I try to bring a round. Sometimes I have to hide it from his son, who has more than once eaten more than his fair share. Sometimes I bring two, just so I know he has all he could possibly want, and my mom can have some too. When stability isn't guaranteed, I actively connect to, and if lucky, draw strength from, sharing food, part of the shared experience of Family since before I was born. I can't guarantee this comfort will continue to soothe, just like I don't know the outcome of any treatment. But to share something I love with someone I love brings me a joy I can ground in reality. It's only cheese, yes, but it’s a shared moment, a remembered flavor, a moment appreciating the process of the controlled spoilage of milk with people I love.