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The Origin of Cheese

Illustration of assorted life within a wedge of cheeses

Dating a biologist is a blast, especially if you write a food column. All I’ve got to do is form a vague question (“Are pickles alcoholic?”) or make some half-informed assertion (“Isn’t whale milk the highest-calorie food on earth?”) and Minda starts pulling reference books. Not knowing the real answer drives her nuts. It’s way more fun than Google, and much cuter.

We’re both lucky, though, to live in an age when the mechanics of life are well understood. Before microscopes and omne vivum ex ovo (“every living thing comes from an egg”), nobody even agreed on where animals came from. For thousands of years, “spontaneous generation” was a popular theory stating that living creatures, especially “lower forms,” could emerge fully formed from basic ingredients. Grapes ferment into wine and milk curdles into cheese, so why couldn’t meat spoil and become flies? Epicurus (culture’s patron philosopher) thought so, and so did St. Augustine; didn’t God create Adam from clay and breath? Touting this theory, the 17th-century scientist Jan Van Helmont gave a specific recipe for mice: wrap grain and cheese in soiled linen and let stand in a quiet corner. Voilà!

Cheese was often a key ingredient in spontaneous generations. After all, medieval food wasn’t refrigerated, so it was common to find otherwise inexplicable varmints popping out of your breakfast. But for some thinkers, the link between cheese and life was more profound than that. Carlo Ginzburg’s 1992 book The Cheese and the Worms details the beliefs of Domenico Scandella, a 16th-century Italian miller who was tried by the Roman Inquisition for claiming the world had formed by putrefaction. In Scandella’s own words:

“I have said that, in my opinion, [in the beginning] there was chaos… and out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time.”

While Scandella might seem like a lone weirdo, his beliefs were similar to those put forth in the Hindu Vedas, where the world is curdled from the ocean, and especially the Mongolian Kalmyk people’s genesis story, which gives the same cheese—worms—angels—God progression.

Ginzburg thought the theory had been passed all the way across Asia by word of mouth, but I don’t think that’s it. In the time before plastic and Silly Putty, there wasn’t a lot of generic, malleable stuff around—just clay, poop, dough, and cheese. So when an Italian miller (or a Kalmyk sheepherder) tried to picture the world before creation, he thought of something like cheese: shapeless, nourishing, melty matter that wasn’t really animal, vegetable, or mineral, and which, if left alone, naturally grows worms and mice and little green fuzz.

Of course, Minda would like you all to know that spontaneous generation has been thoroughly refuted—Francesco Redi proved that meat didn’t sprout maggots in 1668, and Louis Pasteur (culture’s patron scientist) finally disproved the spontaneous generation of microbes in 1864. Remember, however, that Minda’s not a physicist: you are free to believe in the universe’s origin as cheese until further notice.

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