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Volume 16, Issue 5: Thema

Cheese Journal

Douglas Jones

May 14

Today I write within an Albanian prison. They didn't like my questions about their cheese. Djathe, I kept saying, djathe, for that is the Albanian word for cheese. Maybe I was mispronouncing it, so I said it louder. I wrote it on index cards and showed them to grocers. Nothing. I wrote it in huge green letters on picket signs and in coral lipstick across my T-shirt. Nothing, until the police came. It may also be the word for something else.
Like so many others in the world, Albanians are tight-lipped about cheese. I'm not afraid, though. The daily diet of most Albanians includes cheese and vegetables and bread; they also eat plenty of fruit and often share a drink called boza with which they toast each other—Gezuar, they say. I suspect cheese is involved.
The corner of my cell is damp and crusty but a good sort of crusty. The police were kind to me this afternoon. They kept asking me to leave; they pretended not to want me here. I gave them back their keys.
I scratched the verse from Job chapter 10 on my cell wall, the crusty one: "Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?" I press my forehead into the verse. What is the meaning of cheese? Oh, what? I must share some of Job's suffering to know his meaning. One of the guards tells me the meaning of cheese is victory, escape, liberation. But he is a proud man, I can tell.
May 22
I have been on the run and not able to journal. I am making my way to Norway where they heavily subsidize cheese production. I escaped my Albanian captivity with only a few bruises when I stumbled in the street. I refused to pay the fee for writing on their walls. I am in some Germanic land today, searching for St. Gall's monastery where Charlemagne stopped and tasted cheese. I nibble on some Somerset Brie, but I long for a slice of Saint-Nectare. Cheeses are always more flavorful at room temperature but bring only what you need, leaving the rest tightly wrapped in the fridge.
I found St. Gall's. It is old like a monastery, the medieval sort. I run my fingers along its outer wall and enjoy its texture. Charlemagne was right here. I can sense it. Perhaps he went inside, too. The monks gave him some of their cheese, but he scandalously cut off the mold like a barbarian. The bishop told him he was throwing away the best part, so he tried some he had discarded. He loved it and said, "Be sure to send me cartloads of such cheese."
Centuries later a battle waged in a field near here between friends of Brie and the friends of Roquefort, each claiming Charlemagne had approved their respective cheeses. Three hundred died that day. Tomorrow I will weep on that battlefield.
June 2
I believe monks know things, mysterious things and secrets, too, so I have lingered around St. Gall's for several weeks. They have beautiful gardens here, but I am no longer allowed to wander them. I rise early with the monks and attend prayers. Until the sun rises, I quietly rock back and forth and recite to myself, "Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?"
I ask them my questions about the meaning of curdling, but they are hiding the answers, too. They won't speak to me. One even elbowed me during worship. They produce their famous cheese behind bolted doors, and they wear white lab coats amid stainless steel batch pasteurizers and plate coolers. I have taken the tour many times, and I shout out the answers to their questions. How I long to push down hard with their cheese presses on the young curds. But they keep me at bay. Cheese production is not very democratic.
They have forbidden me on any more tours. They won't explain. No one ever explains. I start to wander off, and just outside the gates, one of the older monks beckons me into the shadows. "I will only say," he says, "that cheese was an accident. It has no meaning." I breathe deeply for a moment. He smells like rennet. He starts to walk away, his finger across his lips. I lose it. I push him up against the wall and accuse him with my eyes. He shakes his head in silence, then breaks—"Cheese is a symbol of triumph." That same old line. Albanian mythology, I say to him, and push him to the ground.
June 7
I have decided against going to Norway; the Norwegians are already too quiet and speak little of meaning, except fish and hair. Their word for cheese is ost, just ost, and that's not enough effort. I worry about the cold there, too. Severe cold can make cheese bitter; cheese should be stored long-term at temperatures between 39 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit, but Norway is all Celsius.
I am in the Gouda capital of the world, and today the secretaries at the factory quizzed me. They were surprised I knew that Gouda has 48% fat I.D.M. but that Edem has only 40%. I also knew that Holland produces 30 million pounds of cheese per week and that Gouda light uses vegetable rather than animal rennet. They knew answers to my queries about the red wax coatings and that the Canary Islands is the only other country besides the U.S. that imports red wax Gouda. I hesitated in my response to their question about the aging rates between mild and medium, and they refused to speak to me anymore. I never learned the answer, but I had guessed seven weeks.
Though the secretaries wouldn't talk, they signed me toward lower management offices. I asked two men about French cheese, and one quickly answered that cheese was accidentally discovered by middle-eastern nomads who carried milk in pouches made from calf stomachs. The enzymes in the stomach caused the milk to separate into curds and wey, and that cheese has no meaning. I just smiled and took a bite of a Gouda ball from his desk. They both got very nervous. I stood up and reminded them I had asked about French cheese. One of them then blurted out, "How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?" I shook my head. "Charles de Gaulle," I said. Too late. And I left Holland, though I will always tip my hat to them for they once, in the Caribbean, used Gouda rounds as cannon balls.
June 16
I have been living in the caves outside the town of Cheddar, England, located at the foot of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, nineteen miles from Bath. Its name says the whole story, but today this area only wants to talk about its caves. They call it the Grand Canyon of England, and nobody here will talk of their great history of cheese.
The cave in which I meditate drips. Its walls and natural pillars are orange with a tinge of blue. I feel like I am inside a round of maturing cheddar, except for the river. The pocket where I sit could be a cheese tunnel, like that caused when bacteria consumes lactic acid and releases carbon dioxide gas bubbles. But that is Swiss cheese, and I am in Cheddar. The color is right here, though, for cheddar. Cheddar, England became famous for not remixing the curds but simply turning the loaves over. Unlike Gouda or Jack, you can still see the faint outline of curds when you break apart cheddar cheese. I must go into Cheddar for more cheddar. I will name my first child after this town. But first I must suffer here more, curdling my soul, hiding from tourists.
June 29
Within my cave I scrape my arms and back against the sharp corners. I guard my pile of cheddar well and think of Thoreau who said, "We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are." Me too, I say—me too.
The national park guards at the Cheddar caves got testy with me again and won't be quieted with the small stash of mozzarella I have kept in foil. They tell me to go curdle somewhere else.
I am off across the ocean to Tillamook, Oregon, I tell them, to the largest cheese-producing plant in the world. But they just push me a little in the back. I quote Brillat-Savarin to them that a dinner that ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye. They shrug and tell me that mature cheese is like a soul that perseveres through tribulation and enters into the eschatology of victory. I push my hair behind my ears. I tell them I will name my second child Tillamook.
July 3
The ocean was cruel to me. Fierce whitecaps or icebergs—I couldn't discern well from 35,000 feet. Wyoming is still flat and good. I am now sitting across the highway from the sprawling Tillamook cheese plant, surrounded by slight hills, Irish green. I can smell cows and their accoutrements, and semi-trucks often block my view. I chew my last bit of Stilton cheese, pale as a leper, a leper in the sun with cold hands. I daydream about the huge culture rooms inside Tillamook. I would like to be the first to swim in buttermilk and protein, but I left my swim trunks at customs. Self-loathing overcomes me for the rest of the day.
July 4
I try to enter the Tillamook visitor center, but it is suspiciously closed today. I start wondering if someone tipped them off that I was on my way. Maybe St. Galls. Or those Dutch secretaries.
I will need extra strength. I go online and order to be Fedexed to my motel a round of that most noble of cheeses—Kasseri. It is a best-kept secret, and it is the future of the Church. As a boy, I ate it in the battlefields of Athens, and I became a man.
July 5
Tillamook still closed. I grow more suspicious. From a nearby grocer, I buy some feta cheese in protest. My fingers are moist and milky.
July 6
I sneak up just before the visitor center opens. Nothing. I check if it's Sunday. Or Saturday. No. I discover it's the middle of the week. But the parking lot is full of buses. I walk off, as if disappointed and cross the road, and I hide in a grass crevice beside the highway.
After five minutes, I see Tillamook guards patrolling the parking lot, a fearsome sight. They seem to be looking for something. When they think it's clear, I spy them leading small clusters of cowering tourists to the doors of the visitor center. The doors are unlocked from within.
After an hour of watching secret cheese-tourist trafficking, I realize I have smashed my feta in the grass. I can sense my grandmother cursing me. But I have to rise. I run toward the cheese guards, and they quickly confront me, hands held upright. One calls me by my name, but he speaks in that strange Oregonian accent. Another shouts that cheese is an accident. They don't want my kind around here, they say. I tell them they can't hide the truth forever. I shout "CheeseWhiz is cheese!" and I sprint away. They pick up stones but don't throw them. I slip away like a jaguar.
July 7
This is the day. This might be my last entry. I must break through the cheese guards and expose the mysteries within Tillamook's sacred halls.
My Kasseri arrived late yesterday afternoon, and I feast only on it. I am glad to die with Kasseri. And yet I do not know its meaning. I stare at a slice, and it holds its secret within its creamy saltiness, its firm, hard texture aged for six months. Its curd has been hand stretched and kneaded, like me.
For my devotions, I read about King David and his cheese. I bet some was Kasseri. David goes off on his journey that will bring him face to face with Goliath, the Hebrew word for Tillamook, and David's father makes him take cheese, of course: "Carry these ten cheeses to the captain of their thousand, and see how your brothers fare, and bring back news of them" (1 Samuel 17:18).
Then it hits me for the first time. Cheese, David, Goliath, testing, trial, maturity, perseverance, conquest, feast. Perhaps cheese is an expression of, of—of penance.
I write, "I stand," in this journal and then I stand, ready to meet my Goliath. I unlatch and open my motel door then I return this journal to my pillow. I hope the cleaning lady doesn't take it. When I stop writing, I will march out the door. There.

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