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Outlaws and Inmates: Tales of Good Cheese Gone Bad

Illustration of an outlaw with a gun toting a wedge of cheese in a sack

Cheese might seem like a wholesome business on the surface, but here at culture we’re not afraid to peel back the wax and give you a taste of the gamier side:

Dec. 7, 2005, Memphis, TN (AP):
Jessica Sandy Booth, 18, was arrested over the weekend and charged with four counts of attempted murder and four counts of soliciting a murder . . . According to police, Booth was in the intended victims’ home last week when she mistook a block of queso fresco for cocaine, inspiring the idea to hire someone to break into the home, take the drugs, and kill the men . . . “Four men were going to lose their lives over some cheese,” said Lt. Jeff Clark.

She reportedly needed the money to pay a modeling agency fee.

That story is merely a case of mistaken identity, but as both a luxury item and a fungible commodity, the real thing attracts its share of fraudsters, mobsters, and thieves.

Take the great Montgomery Cheddar heist, for example. On a dark night in 1998, the eve of British Cheese Awards, someone broke into a warehouse in North Cadbury, England, and drove away with five tons of cloth-wrapped cheese. The robbers knew enough to take only the best stuff, and although the case was never solved, it has all the earmarks of an inside job – after all, who else could unload all that benchmark cheddar? The uninsured wheels had an estimated value in excess of $50,000. More sinister is the possibility that the curd heist was intended to deprive cheesemaker Jamie Montgomery of the profits of a third consecutive gold-medal win.

If the robbers did fence the goods, the cheddar was likely chopped up and shipped overseas like a stolen Civic, to be passed off as lesser cheddar or sold under the table with a wink. The buyer would be someone a lot like you, a connoisseur demanding what the FDA forbids: mostly young cheese (aged less than 60 days) made from unpasteurized milk. Why? Vogue food columnist and admitted Camembert smuggler Jeffrey Steingarten declares that raw milk cheeses are “far more succulent and delicious than their pasteurized versions.” Any wonder that a few bricks come in from Canada or France “mislabeled”?

But a large part of the fresh-cheese trade doesn’t end up on the plates of the wealthy. Remember the queso fresco? When not mistaken for blow, it’s an essential ingredient in Latin-American cooking. And while domestic pasteurized production is growing, the traditional raw milk variety continues to get made in illegal bathtub batches on both sides of the border. Dealers operate in immigrant communities, selling at flea markets or from the back of a car.

Several major outbreaks of listeriosis have been traced to “suitcase cheese,” just the situation the FDA hoped to prevent. The ironies of prohibition continue— while the wealthy have access by travel and discreet imports, the poor suffer with moonshine product.

Fortunately, if you’re the average consumer, you have little to worry about. A reputable neighborhood dealer can steer you toward safe, legal, affordable choices for you and your family. And perhaps even other opportunities:

Sept. 27, 2009, Boston, MA (Boston Globe):
Carmen “The Cheese Man” DiNunzio, once the reputed boss of the Mafia in Boston, was sentenced today to six years in prison on charges that he tried to bribe an undercover FBI agent posing as a state highway inspector in a bid to get a $6 million Big Dig contract . . . DiNunzio was dubbed “The Cheese Man” because he owns the Fresh Cheese shop on Endicott Street, in Boston’s North End.

Will Fertman

Will Fertman is a writer and food business entrepreneur living in Berkeley, CA. A former staff writer and web manager for culture, Will wrote the Ruminations column for the magazine and spent lots of time wrangling social media. Today Will is the Director of Content and co-founder at the monger, a data-driven platform for the specialty food industry, supplying accountable information and transactions for producers, distributors, retailers, foodservice and consumers.