I can’t believe that I haven’t written about this amazing paper from MIT anthropologist, Heather Paxson. Heather has been doing research into the culture, business, and politics around cheese. In this paper (link below), she talks about the politics around cheese made from raw milk.
Raw milk, milk that is not pasteurized, is making a comeback (check out this article from the globe). And it flies in the convention of our predominantly sterile mentality (morality?) of antibiotics, pasteurization, anti-bacteria soaps, latex glove, masks, and hand sanitizers. Since the Ghost Map was drawn, we’ve been getting better and better at separating ourselves from microorganisms.
One big guy who changed how we deal with microorganisms was Loius Pasteur (ironically, I work a few blocks from a road named after him). Based on his work, we regularly “pasteurize” things like milk through high heat and pressure to kill all the microorganisms, good and bad.
Our pasteurized world has indeed been good to us health-wise. Indeed, my wife, a vet, knows all too well what could happen if one ingested spoiled raw milk. Why take a chance? Though I do think there might be a middle ground, what with all the understanding and science we have. But there’s something indicative when you have to sign a waiver to buy raw milk.
Which takes us to the raw milk cheese. The process of making cheese uses microbes to turn raw unpasteurized milk in to a safe and stable product. That’s why humans have made all sorts of “controlled spoilage” foods. And the microbes that grow on cheese can be beneficial to our health (much like folks now claim with live yoghurt).
But the idea of a product made from unpasteurized milk flies in the face of our ingrained Pasteurian ideals. Paxson analyzes the microbiopolitics that arises from this cognitive dissonance.
Paxson is not some anti-Pasteurian extremist, she knows that there’s a reason we keep an eye on the microbes on our food. She also knows that, at least with cheese making, worrying about raw milk does not make sense, considering the microbiology and tradition of cheese making. And the cheese maker she profiles is a great example of the balance of careful practice of microbiology and deep craft of cheese production.
In the past few years, there has been an increase in the numbers of reports regarding asthma, intestinal diseases, skin conditions, superbugs, and other health effects from a sterile, Pasteurian world gone too far. Paxson’s work fits in that discussion thread. To me, the discussion around raw milk cheese will do more (more so than raw milk alone) to awake us to a post-Pasteurian world where we understand the role of microbes in our life and food (check out this raw milk cheese manifesto, too).
And if you’re curious about practical uses of microbes and the future balance between man and bug, you’d read her article (download the PDF or go to Paxson’s site). And then let me know what you think of the coming Post-Pasteurian Age.
Image from Boston Globe