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Cheese in the Time of…Michael Jackson


Cheesemaking is a time-tested and aged art, but the process is only half of the story! The history of cheese is not quite as simple as you might think, and it can connect us back to some of the most iconic figures of the past. From politicians to pop stars, join culture intern Emily as she dives into history and learns about the cheese culture during the life and times of some of America’s most famous faces. Last week we looked at legendary daredevil, Evel Knievel, and the bold beginning of queso dip. This week we’re looking at the many faces of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and the many sides of rennet.


Since his first childhood appearance as one of the lead singers of The Jackson 5 in 1965, Michael Jackson lived his life in the eye of the public. The world watched him grow up, and listened to his music evolve over nearly 45 years as a performer. Known as the “King of Pop,” Jackson was also recognizable for his vocal hiccups, flashy dance moves, and eccentric style. Although his successful career was star-studded with international accolades, his was also a life that was shrouded in controversy. For a figure whose face was often pictured in the media for one reason or another, that face changed a remarkable number of times throughout the years. While it’s likely that the first mental image of Michael Jackson to pop into our heads is of him post-plastic surgery, we might also recall the image of Jackson in a red leather jacket and glowing zombie eyes at the end of his 1983 hit music video, Thriller. This 13-minute video revolutionized the music industry and changed the way artists, directors, and audiences interacted with music as both an auditory and cinematic experience. In 2009, Thriller was officially selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry, having been distinguished as a piece of American filmmaking that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant; it is the only music video to be included in the National Film Registry collection.

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of patch.com

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of patch.com

As Michael Jackson’s work was changing the face of the American music scene in the 1980s, cheese was also undergoing a technological revolution. As many cheese enthusiasts likely already know, rennet is one of the most essentials components in cheese production. Traditionally, rennet comes from the lining of a baby cow’s fourth stomach, and is procured by cheesemakers as a byproduct of veal production. In modern cheesemaking, several alternatives to animal rennet can be used in the process. However, in 1970s America, cheesemakers realized that their access to animal rennet was steadily decreasing, due to animal rights activism that characterized the 1960s and 1970s. As production and consumer costs of cheese skyrocketed, scientists searched for a rennet substitute; although vegetable and microbial rennets were known alternatives, they were both hard to come by and sometimes altered the flavor of the cheese.

With the development of genetic engineering in the 1980s, scientists were able to extract rennet-producing genes from livestock, and insert those genes into certain bacteria or fungi that assisted in the growth process. The final isolated product is known as fermentation-produced chymosin (FPC), and after years of testing, the Food and Drug Administration approved FPC in 1990 as a safe bioengineered product. This decision was precedent-setting in the US, and is exemplary of the GMO culture that characterized America in the ’80s and ’90s. The discovery of GM chymosin came at a time when the boundaries of food, science, and technology were being remarkably blurred. Today, roughly 80-90% of commercially produced cheeses in America are made with FPC.

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of dairystore.unl.edu

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of dairystore.unl.edu

Comment to Win:

Much like Michael Jackson’s career, the prevalence of GMOs in American culture has both positive and negative sides to the story. While rennet substitutes like GM chymosin allow cheesemakers to produce their cheese more cost effectively, others are concerned about the long-term effects of consuming such ingredients, and prefer to source their food locally and organically. What is your opinion about the use of rennet substitutes in cheese? Can you taste the difference cheeses are made with vegetable or microbial rennets are used? Share your answer in the comments section, and you can win a free issue of our latest print edition! Comments must be posted by Tuesday, December 2, 2014 to be eligible to win. Winners must have a mailing address in the continental US. Good luck!

Photo Credit: Featured image courtesy of billboard.com

Emily Dangler

Culture Intern Emily Dangler is a creative writer and travel enthusiast, who is always looking for a good story to tell. Originally a West Coast girl, Emily has spent several years migrating across the country and is currently an adopted resident of Boston, where she is enjoying the city's delicious food and rich history.

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