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Cheese and the Power of Myth

Statue of Marie Harel in Vimoutiers, France

In the beginning, there was milk. After a mysterious sequence of events, that milk became cheese. Whether or not you believe cheese was created accidentally 8,000 years ago by an Arab trader transporting his milk in a sheep’s-stomach pouch (a commonly held theory), the discovery of the cheesemaking process seems too monumental to be relegated to pedestrian origins. Truly, the process itself is like magic: Microscopic organisms and enzymes are added to fluid milk, which then separates into solids and a cloudy liquid, bearing little resemblance to its progenitor. These solids can then be stretched, dried, aged, infused, smoked, inoculated, and whipped into entirely new products. The science behind cheesemaking is complex and well-studied, but to the average person, it looks like sorcery.

Many varieties of cheese are said, quite plausibly, to have begun life as mishaps. And before science became the ruling law of nature, mishaps were the work of gods or magic; when belief in these forces fell by the wayside, kismet, hearsay, and the supernatural persisted. This is how origin myths about cheese were born.

“Humans are natural-born storytellers,”says Katherine Hysmith, a Ph.D.candidate studying food history and its contemporary reverberations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “No matter where you come from or what you do, [storytelling is] something that unites all humans. The other thing is food.” Certain food items are so beloved by humans, it seems fitting that their origins be suitably larger than life.

Take, for example, the legend of Marie Harel. Harel was a dairymaid living andworking in Normandy during the FrenchRevolution. Mythology has it that a priest escaping the anti-Catholic sentiments in Paris hid out at the estate at which Harel worked. The priest, being a native of Brie, taught the young woman the art of fine cheesemaking in the Brie tradition. Harel put her own entrepreneurial spin on the traditional recipe, and lo, Camembert was born…or so they say.

“All myths are based partially on truth, regardless of whether they’re about food or not,” says Hysmith. And indeed, Harel was a real person. She did build a dynasty on large-scale cheese production, and was primarily responsible for the popularity of Camembert at home and abroad. The tale of her fateful meeting with the escaping priest, however, holds as much water as cheesecloth. But where evidence fails, a great story takes its place, and has been proliferated through the centuries. We still don’t know the truth, but do we care?

Likewise, it’s said that preoccupied shepherds were responsible for heavy hitters such as Raclette, blue cheese, and thistle rennet coagulation. With blue cheese, for instance, the legend tells of a French shepherd resting in a cave became distracted from his lunch of curds and bread by a beautiful maiden. Months later, he returned to the cave to find his cheese inexplicably riddled with blue veins. We’re meant to believe he ate it anyways, tempting death for kicks.

“Before we had some of the more modern sciences, we had to come up with explanations for how various foods came to be,” Hysmith says. “Some of these took more religious slants, some took more folklore slants, but everyone wanted these explanations for how the world worked.” It wasn’t until relatively recently that we discovered the scientific explanations for most mysteries of the natural world. Many of today’s beloved cheeses hail from the dimly-lit time before the Scientific Revolution, so legends and myths were, of course, used to explain their existence. Why, then, do we still cling to them?

Hysmith explains that, in our undying quest to flesh out our history, humans often get the threads crossed. “Over time, we’ve learned to remedy a lot of that,” she says. “But some of these myths about food have stuck, maybe because they’re not too detrimental overall, but they’re fun and they have a folksy element to them.”

When we ask why something exists, we expect, like children, to be dazzled. (“I imagine a lot of myths happened because parents just had to answer questions,” says Hysmith.) A recounting of well-executed and tedious research and development does not keep us on the edge of our seats. We want the lovelorn shepherd, the mystified trader, the Benedictine monks huddled in wonder over the first accidental washed rind cheese. We love the perfectly imperfect meet-cute of invention.

“I think you’ll find a lot of human error in mythology, especially when humans are involved,” says Hysmith. “It’s comforting to be able to blame someone else, but we also have this happy circumstance at the end, which is cheese.”

Margaret Leahy

Margaret Leahy is a Contributing Editor at culture.

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