Samples of human cheese were offered last night at Feast in Greenpoint.
Human cheese is one of those topics you wish would just go away. It first reared its ugly head last year when a blogger-chef from a certain Chelsea bistro suggested he’d milked his wife to make cheese for a private party.
I’ve talked both to cheese experts and lactating mothers, and come to the conclusion that the quantity of breast milk needed to make anything like a commercial quantity of cheese is prohibitive, since a mother rarely produces more than a pint per day, which would boil down to less than four ounces of cheese. Further, fresh human ricotta with no preservatives, even when refrigerated, would go bad in a couple of days.
So here’s the situation: You’d have to milk the mother every day to produce small quantities of cheese, presumably taking the milk away from the baby — mothers rarely have huge quantities left over after feeding a hungry infant. Yes, a mother can continue lactating after the baby is weened, but what mom in her right mind wants to do that regularly — with the attendant pain, chapping, and leakage — to produce breast-milk cheese as a kind of culinary stunt?
Last week, Fork in the Road published a report on a company in London that was making human ice cream. Rather than hiding under the cloak of adventuresome culinary experimentation, this crass operation — still in its earliest stages — intends to milk the poor, who respond to an ad for hard cash. They have to be tested medically first, just as a cow is inspected and tested before it can give milk in a dairy, to demonstrate that it has no diseases that might be transmitted through the milk.
And, what’s more, the ice cream so produced is hideously expensive, costing something like $20 for a serving. Despite the picture — which shows a martini glass heaped with some white substance — the servings were minuscule, since the first batch made with 30 fluid ounces of milk was said to produce 50 servings. Even without precise calculations and recipes, the servings must have been less than one ounce apiece — just a dab in the bottom of the glass. Thirteen more women had already been recruited for the restaurant’s herd. Clearly, this is ice cream for thrill seekers and misogynist pervs.
At Feast last night, Miriam Simun offers samples of human cheese.
But the topic won’t go away. Last night I attended a wonderful event at a church in Greenpoint organized by Feast. This outfit stages events for which guests pay a $20 door charge. They’re fed a light dinner with beer, both donated — but the purpose of the event isn’t dining and drinking. Around the room are posted art prospectuses by 10 organizations that have been invited to compete for the door money in the form of a grant. Diners each have one vote, and the grant is awarded to one of the contestants at the end of the evening’s festivities. View last night’s contestants here.
Among several interesting projects — including one which sought to create soil along the Gowanus Canal by composting waste from restaurants — was one proposing to make human breast milk into a sort of community art project. The proposal, by Miriam Simun, was verbose and hard to read and filled with pretentious blather:
Human Cheese — a local, natural, ethical, sustainable system for sourcing, creating and distributing human cheese. I will use the grant to purchase human milk, scientific monitoring and molecular gastronomy tools, create exquisite packaging and an immersive dinner/exhibition experience that creates a space for discussion around what human cheese as product means, and what we want our future to be. Human Cheese is an experiment in creating applied biotechnology and ethical & sustainable food systems. Biotechnology is revolutionizing life, with little public knowledge or attention. Consider new uses of the human body made possible by recent developments in biotechnology. Hidden technologies often enable unsustainable and unethical ways of life. Industrialized food systems are a prime example: we abuse animals, exploit people, pollute the earth, and destroy our bodies as we eat — but these processes are largely invisible.
Given that the grant was only a few thousand dollars, it’s hard to imagine she could buy many “scientific monitoring and molecular gastronomy tools,” and one wonders exactly what those tools might be. Not to mention purchasing human milk. And what is the role of “biotechnology” in this process, unless you’re intent on manipulating the human genome to increase the mother’s yield? There’s really nothing mysterious about making ricotta. You just scald the milk, drop in the lemon juice (or rennet or vinegar), and the stuff curdles.
All the supplicants for funds had displays in which they promoted their projects. I went to Simun’s and, sure enough, she had a display of breast-milk cheese. She offered me a sample, which I accepted. Scraping very white cheese from a small square bowl, she placed a portion in a tasting spoon and, with a flourish, poured honey over it from a glass cruet.
Well, in spite of the honey, it tasted exactly like cow’s-milk ricotta, of which I’d had a sandwich for lunch just hours before — so the taste was still fresh in my mind. When I betrayed no opinion about it, Ms. Simun aggressively tried to engage me in discussion. I eventually said, “It feels like cannibalism,” and she retorted accusatorily, “Yet you ate it anyway!” as if she were scoring a debating point. When I asked where the milk came from, she tersely replied, “From a Midtown investment banker,” which didn’t ring true. What Midtown investment banker has time to put up with this sort of nonsense?
Did I actually taste human cheese, or was it a hoax? I’m leaning in the direction of hoax. I’ve tasted human breast milk (what father hasn’t?) and it didn’t taste anything like that — but you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Next: Finally, the Five Reasons …
Five Reasons Why Human Cheese Is Disgusting
1. As food blogger Adrian Moore replied after I Tweeted that I’d tried breast-milk cheese: “That is so wrong. Turns my stomach.” He’s right. There is something fundamentally disgusting about it. This is human instinct talking. Listen to it.
2. Breast-milk cheese forces babies to compete with hipster foodies for mother’s milk, and a baby can’t punch a foodie in the face. Excess breast milk should be donated for the nourishment of premature and critically ill babies (there are milk banks for this purpose), not sold like some farm commodity.
3. No one knows what the effect of human breast milk on adults will be. The milk contains a complex mixture of nutrients, hormones, and antibodies formulated by Mother Nature not for adults, but for the youngest babies.
4. Less than 100 years ago, you could get tuberculosis from drinking cow’s milk, and other diseases like hepatitis C or even AIDS may be transmissible by milk, too. Which is why cows are medically tested on a continuous basis and milk is pasteurized. The human milk in the cheese I tasted has undergone none of this.
5. Women are not farm animals. Human-breast-milk cheese casts them in that role. There is nothing “ethical” about milking humans. What woman would consent to being milked for the culinary pleasure of others, unless strapped for cash? The natural result of this happening on a large scale is the exploitation of poor mothers, who will be tempted to sell milk and feed their babies formula.
“Soylent Green is people!”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2011