As I was pondering what to write about this week and thinking that of late, my blogs have been perhaps too “dark”, I happened to catch a whiff of the pungent dirty gym socks-like odor coming off ME! The unmistakable smell of Breve Bacterium Linens, or what those of us in the know affectionately refer to as “B Linens.” If you have had a ripe Muenster or Port Salut, B Linens is the bacterium additive that brings the lovely coral red blush to their rinds. I particularly love those two because I somehow remember them as being faves of our mom. And although they don’t bring the Proust-like flood of recall that some foods do, they do bring some kind of smile to my memory. Inhaling the stink rather characteristically clinging to my shirt, I thought, “maybe I’ll write about cheese!”
Last week I had the thrill and honor of appearing on the world YouTube stage for the first time. No, not as any kind of trauma expert; rather, my much-loved Australian cheesemaking teacher and guru Gavin Webber invited me to participate in his special event, “Twelve Hours of Cheese.” No, not for twelve hours, but for a one-hour interview about my own little story as an artisan home cheese maker. And that story I do remember. Not without trauma, the traumatic events were more like little “insults” that ultimately were mostly edible. When people say “cheesemaking! What an interesting hobby!” I say, “No, you don’t get it. For me, cheesemaking is not a hobby. It is a diagnosis!” What an oxymoron and identity shock for this invisible old child of neglect to be out there in the public eye. But before I go on, I better change this shirt because it really is kind of unbearable.
When people say “cheesemaking! What an interesting hobby!” I say, “No, you don’t get it. For me, cheesemaking is not a hobby. It is a diagnosis!”
Why Make Cheese?
My favorite album of all time is the Rolling Stones’ 1972 masterpiece Exile on Mainstreet. I remember at the height (or depth) of my dysregulation, bellowing along with Keith, “Everybody goooonnna need some kind of ventilator….” He had a rough childhood, bombs falling in London, a neglectful mom, hunger, an alcoholic father. No wonder he got so hopelessly addicted to heroin for so many years. I am grateful that I dodged that bullet. I can certainly see its appeal. And he is right.
The concept still stands. All of us with dysregulated nervous systems, with stressful daily lives, whether due to personal trauma histories or being a psychotherapist to the traumatized, or both, need these relief valves; ways to recharge and re-balance or simply rest. Perchance I fell into cheesemaking as just that. It really was a kind of an accident. I have always loved cheese, and it was a remote fantasy to try making it someday, like many other little fantasies that never materialize. This time, someone innocently lent me a book about home cheesemaking, and on a whim, I thought I would give it a try. I made the beginner’s cheese that most people start and many end with: quick mozzarella. Oy vey – I was hooked. It was a royal road to regulation. A friend affectionately nicknamed me “Cheese Wiz!”
Like sex, cheesemaking requires a delicate balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic, a focused presence floating on a pulsing excitement. Gavin’s book Keep Calm and Make Cheese is well named. You have to be calm to do it, and it is summarily calming. Perfect! But I get ahead of myself.
Suspecting I had discovered a new brand of self-care, I returned the borrowed book, bought my own copy and then every other cheese book I could find. And it was an amazing vehicle of focus – calm and fun, even though my first cheeses were nothing to brag about, with a failure rate of about 60%. I scoured the internet and YouTube and searched out all the tutorial videos and courses I could find. That was when I found Gavin, who became my go-to authority. I lived for his weekly live stream and live chat program Ask the Cheeseman, and I worked my way through his how-to videos, trying as many as I could. Now in about year four or five of my journey, it seems there is no going back.
And what a great teacher it is. Cheese is a living thing. It grows and evolves, and without proper care and hygiene, it drifts awry, with runaway unwanted mold growth and bacterial hitchhikers and vagabonds floating around where they can make havoc. It is also a great teacher of patience. When I first started making cheeses that had to age three or four months before being ready to eat, I thought, “no way!! How am I supposed to wait?!” Then I discovered the cheeses that take six to twelve months and more. Like trauma healing time, it moves glacially slowly. But ultimately, transformation occurs, and out of a shapeless mess, something new and delicious emerges. It is usually worth it. Not always, of course; that is why the essential brain function of learning from experience comes in!
Cheese is a living thing. It grows and evolves, and without proper care and hygiene, it drifts awry, with runaway unwanted mold growth and bacterial hitchhikers and vagabonds floating around where they can make havoc.
For millennia, around the world, people have been making this simple food with essentially one ingredient. They all seemed to spontaneously discover that although they could not store milk long enough to span the seasons when it was less plentiful, this simple procedure made a nutritious food that lasted much longer and was also delicious. Spontaneously and cross-culturally (no pun intended!), a growing wealth of styles and varieties developed, and a whole world unto itself of methodology and even language was formed. I was amazed as I got acquainted with that new to me little world, that there was a whole new vocabulary and set of concepts to learn, just like everything else. Who ever heard of Breve Bacterium Linens, of flocculation, or Mespohillic and Thermophilic Starter Cultures, to name but a few. However, these terms all became part of my daily life and copious reading.
Even before the pandemic struck and isolation became the norm, entering this world community of cheesemakers made me feel connected to people across geography and across time. It made me feel connected to cows and goats and sheep and all the other mammals that produce milk. And something about working with milk seemed to tie back into Attachment Theory, so although cheesemaking struck like a fallen meteor that lit up the sky and then landed, it also felt somehow very consonant with who I had already been.
When the pandemic hit and we were all locked down, cheesemaking became even more important as a means of regulation. There is something very steady and plodding about a process that takes a long time and a fair amount of fuss, much like therapy, but without (most of!) the pain. And because cheesemaking requires so much sanitizing and cleaning, all the guard rails imposed by the pandemic, with the exception perhaps of face masks, were well known to me. It became an effective, regulating pandemic activity; long days, including sometimes a 90-minute or two-hour stir – a fine opportunity to watch the wealth of webinars and virtual conferences, which were, to me, a welcome spawn of the times. My greatest teachers joined me in the kitchen, and all that stirring was like a gentle afternoon of kayaking in Kona.
Most of all, however, I discovered that almost everyone loves it. Most people I knew had never eaten artisan cheese and were more familiar with mass-produced, ordinary, or even processed cheese like Velveeta or Kraft Singlets. As my product became slowly better and even gift worthy, I began to find a source of great pleasure, joy and connection in sharing it. It made me feel happy and less alone. I started sending packages to friends and loved ones all over, and having my creation go into their bodies makes me feel a kind of organicity of connection. If the pandemic can widely and perilously unite us in fear and deathly danger, perhaps this other microorganism-infused agent could organically unite us in health and love. That is how it seems to me. If nothing else, I found it makes me happy! That regulates me and keeps me going.
All my cheeses are dated on the day they are made. Keeping up with my daily affinage, all the fussy little steps that cheese requires day-to-day during aging keeps me aware of the passage of time, which in “pandemic time” might otherwise seem static, stopped or a seemingly endless Groundhog Day. Time stands still in the brain of the traumatized. Life in present time does inch along forward.
Now, when I meet someone new that I like, the perennial question they are faced with is, “Do you like cheese?” It is rare to hear “no”. “Send me your postal address!” I say, and suddenly I have a new friend. It seems to melt barriers! And it is my favorite way to say, “thank you!”
Here in the US, it used to be rather customary, when taking family photos, for the erstwhile photographer to say, “Say Cheese!” to the assembled photo subjects in an effort to get a toothy, rather gritty smile of sorts. In Madonna’s iconic 1991 movie, Truth or Dare, she updates it to “Say dildo!” I have adapted her practice when I take a group shot and usually get authentic and charming expressions! Whichever you prefer, keep calm and have some cheese! It is alive!
There is something very steady and plodding about a process that takes a long time and a fair amount of fuss, much like therapy, but without (most of!) the pain. And because cheesemaking requires so much sanitizing and cleaning, all the guard rails imposed by the pandemic, with the exception perhaps of face masks, were well known to me.
And for the curious, here’s the link. I’m at Hour 3:
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.