In this blog series, intern Julia will explore the everyday language surrounding cheese, from etymology to idioms to associations. Learn why we “say cheese” when we take a photo, why once upon a time we believed that the moon was made of green cheese, or even the history of the word cheese itself. Plus, be sure to answer the prompt at the end of the post each week for a chance to win a copy of culture’s ultimate cheese pairing guide: Cheese+ Last week, we discussed why we “say cheese” for photographs, and Maggie is the contest winner. Congrats, and good luck to everyone for this week!
The other night I was up late, attempting to finish some homework, when I got that unavoidable midnight hunger familiar to so many night owls. I have quite the collection of cheese at the moment, so I pulled out a wedge and snacked on cheese and crackers while finishing my reading. I proceeded to go to bed and had a very vivid dream about failing a class. While that wasn’t a horrifying, scream-inducing nightmare, it definitely was an unpleasant dream and put me in mind of a saying I’ve heard a few times: Cheese will give you nightmares.
Unlike saying cheese for the camera, it turns out the origin story for this dictum has a very concrete basis – a line in the classic novel A Christmas Carol. When confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge declares him the product of a bad dream, saying, “‘You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’” (An interesting fact to consider is that while several food items are mentioned as possible causes for the Jacob Marley nightmare, the “crumb of cheese” is what made its way into the pop culture lexicon.)
Since Dickens invented quite a few other words and phrases, perhaps it should be no surprise that some of his characters’ statements have become cultural myths. This one in particular has become widespread enough to warrant a mention in a song by Scottish band Arab Strap, and was even the inspiration for a short scene in 30 Rock, which became extremely popular among fans and has its own T-shirt.
Still, is there any truth to the fact that cheese produces terrifying, or at least troubling, dreams? The British Cheese Board wanted to find out. In 2005, they held a study where participants were fed a small amount – two thirds of an ounce – of cheese a half hour before sleeping. Each member of the study was asked to record his or her dreams after eating this “crumb of cheese.” The results were interesting. According to an NPR package on the topic, three-quarters of participants “said that they slept well every night, and most of those people could remember the dreams that they had.” Nigel White, Secretary of the British Cheese Board, noted that certain types of cheeses led to certain types of dreams: Cheddar-eaters tended to dream of celebrities, while those testing Red Leicester recorded dreams steeped in nostalgia.
Both NPR and a BBC article from 2012 point out the less-than-scientific aspects of the study – it was sponsored by the British Cheese Board, tested only British cheeses, and lacked a control group – but everyone seems to agree that tryptophan may be the key to the vivid dreams. An amino acid found in several foods, including milk, peanuts, and turkey, tryptophan helps produce serotonin and is associated with normalizing sleep and reducing stress.
Whether or not cheese causes dreams, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the stuff of nightmares. And even just a chance for pleasant, tryptophan-aided sleep is reason enough for me to have more cheese at night – I might even re-enact the study from the British Cheese Board and see if my favorite celebrities appear after a meager helping of Cheddar!
While not enough studies have been done to conclusively determine the effect of cheese on dreams, anecdotal evidence can be powerful stuff. What sorts of dreams have you had after a meal with cheese? Or, have you ever had a dream about cheese? Answer in the comments section by April 8, 2014 at 12:00 midnight EDT for a chance to win a copy of our upcoming special issue, Cheese+. Don’t forget to stop by next week, when we’ll be investigating how “cheesed off” came to be!Photo Credit: kevin dooley via Compfight cc