Robert dipped his finger into the milk and felt its warmth. The digital thermometer displayed a temperature of 103 F. He added a cup of dry starter culture, spreading it evenly over the milk, and a spoonful of yeast, and gave the vat a stir. The air was heavy with the smell of aging cheese.
He set a timer for 30 minutes and busied himself flipping over yesterday’s molds. The cheese needed to be rotated daily to drain the whey, the process that has been followed for thousands of years in the Rhone-Alpes. Saint Felicien is one of the softest types of cheese, so he needed to be careful not to break the delicate rind that had formed. The rind of soft cheese is not a type of paper as many customers guess, but an amalgate of dried milk and mold. He lamented not being able to label the cheese with its real name. Despite being the only cheesemaker to put in the effort to produce Saint Felicien in America, the name could only refer to those produced in a designated region of France.
Most Wisconsinites still opt for the artificially colored, mass-produced product sold in the supermarket, the stuff that should hardly be called cheese at all.
While he turned over the delicate pouches of fermenting cream, he tried to keep his mind away from the latest loan statement from Dad. Each month, Robert’s father meticulously calculated the interest on the $120,000 loan to found the creamery. The interest was steadily accumulating. The business made a small profit, but one thing or another broke constantly and needed to be fixed, and the repair bills had soaked up all the money they earned, and more.
Robert needed to do something big to break out of this endless loop. Get more attention, bring in national sales. Whole foods. Trader Joes. He wrote a book on the history of craft cheese in America. The first draft was done. Even though people said it was impossible to find a publisher as a new author, unless one was a celebrity, he didn’t give up hope. The American cheese festival would take place in San Francisco next month. He would max out his credit cards, if needed to, to make it there.
Gwen interrupted his reverie.
“Should I start wrapping tomorrow’s batch for the farmer’s market?” She stood facing him with her work overalls on. Robert felt lucky to have someone willing to share his lifestyle.
“Thanks. Rack 37 and 38,” he said. “And, be careful.”
Those racks had aged for 60 days. Sad because Saint Felicien reached its peak of flavor at 40 days. But each batch was labelled and records needed to be shown to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture which required all cheese to be aged for a 60 day minimum period. At least he and Gwen could eat the cheese at its peak, like they do in France, where he had spent 6 months on an apprenticeship.
The next day, at the Market on the Square in Madison, Robert handled a new prospective customer. Robert enjoyed talking to people, and was happy to introduce natural cheese to the people of Wisconsin, one at a time, if that’s what was needed.
“This cheese is handcrafted at our creamery located a half an hour outside of Madison. We buy milk from local producers, and make cheese the old-fashioned way, like they do in Europe. I won’t get into the details, but it's scandalous the artificial methods food companies use to make cheese.” He paused for a second before his deal closer. “Chemicals,” he said with a conspiratorial look that signaled it was best not to ask more.
A paper plate with a small piece of cheese was already in her hands. In the heat of the afternoon, it had become as runny as molten butter.
“This looks…interesting,” she said, holding it up with a tiny plastic fork.
“Nibble on the rind. Then slowly savor the headline act in the middle,” Robert enticed.
Gwen tapped his shoulder. They were setting up down the aisle. Those monsters ruined everything every Saturday.
Aaron worked as a substitute teacher, and as a freelance editor for several online nutritional websites. Someday you’re going to make it big, Aaron’s mother kept telling him. Too bad the medical treatments for lupus consumed so much of his time and energy. And he had tired of explaining to employers, and to everyone else, that men also suffer from the disease, so mostly he didn’t talk about it except with people in the community.
“Don’t eat that!” Aaron shouted across the aisle at a young woman who was holding up a piece of unhygienic cheese with a plastic fork. “It’s not safe!!”
After taking a quick glance, she put the fork down and looked at the cheese merchant. “Is this safe?”
“Unpasteurized cheese is perfectly safe as long as it’s made with high-quality milk and handled properly. We do our best to keep bacteria counts down–”
She put the paper plate back down on their table. “Maybe next time.”
“We follow FDA regulations…”
She flashed an uncomfortable smile at the cheese merchant, turned around, and walked away into the crowd of farmer's market attendees.
Victory! Aaron thought. He looked at Melissa, the final remaining member of his 2021 anti-raw milk activism campaign. “Fucking monsters,” he grumbled.
“Monsters,” she agreed, her voice filled with bitterness.
The cheese merchant, who usually avoided engaging, shouted back. “I can hear you. I am not a monster!”
“Raw cheese is a ticking time bomb,” Aaron argued. “It’s a breeding ground for E. coli and listeria and is a health risk.”
“Here’s the thing, bro. People have been eating cheese in Europe for hundreds of years and lived to tell about it.”
“Just because it doesn’t happen to everyone, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
“As if you know.”
“I do know!”
“I eat my own cheese every day. Look at my physique. Now look at yours. Who’s healthier?”
“That is the last straw.” Aaron felt his face grow warm. Just when he might have taken a swing at the cheese guy, Melissa stepped in front of him.
Melissa took over shouting at the cheese merchant, “What if that woman was pregnant? Your cheese was going to kill her unborn baby. How do you explain that?”
He appeared to not want to make a scene with a woman and backed off, and just pretended like they didn't exist for the rest of the morning.
Around noon, when the farmer’s market was reaching its peak, full of families coming into the city for a day out, Aaron and Melissa began chanting. “Beth Johnson! Beth Johnson!”
Someone asked, “Who’s Beth Johnson?”
Aaron pointed at his sign. Beth Johnson had died of listeria contracted from drinking unpasteurized milk in Oregon in 2018.
“Beth Johnson?” the cheese merchant said. “That hasn’t been proved. Stop being ridiculous with your accusations.”
“Let’s take a public opinion poll!” Aaron shouted back.
“Let’s do that.”
“Who thinks raw cheese is dangerous?”
Shouting to get the attention of the attendees of the farmer's market, they both tried to convince people to take their side. But the crowd skittered away. Soon aisle 5 was deserted except for a few people who watched them warily from a distance. And unhappy fruit preserves and honey sellers. Unless there was physical violence, no one had any real interest in their disagreement.
After flipping out on the protester as a result of losing his customer, Robert looked at Gwen for reassurance.
“Can’t win them all.” She gave him a smile that showed she was 100% on his side.
“But this is so frustrating.”
“If you look back, we sold more cheese last year after that monster got us into the Madison Herald.”
“That’s true,” Robert said. “The gourmet media's attention goes to the producers in Oregon and California, and we are stuck with this guy.”
At 3pm the crowd began to thin. The anti-raw milk protesters started packing up their signs, the ones with slogans like ‘Listeria Monocytogenes Kills!’ and ‘Raw Milk is Curdled Conspiracy Theory!’
Robert began disassembling his own ‘Raw Cheese is our Heritage’ display with its map of France and the historical timeline of cheese production in Wisconsin.
As they both packed away their displays to take home–signalling the end of today's battle–they gave each other a tiny nod. They had been doing this every Saturday morning for at least a year.
Robert took a deep breath, and then went over and explained the proposal.
A few weeks later, Robert and Aaron found themselves in Robert’s truck on the long drive to San Francisco to attend The American Cheese Festival. In the back of the truck, Robert had 300 units of Saint Felicien cheese. Aaron had his ‘Raw Milk Kills!’ displays and brochures. They had agreed to split the cost of gas.
“Pasteurization was the most successful public health program of all time,” Aaron was telling Robert again.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Robert said. “I’m not Satan. I’m just carrying on tradition. Everything in life has risk. And raw cheese is thousands of times safer than raw milk.”
“And you cheese makers are making the fat profits.”
Dumbfounded, Robert took his eyes off the road to look at Aaron. “I’m losing money. Every month.”
Either from what he said, or from the realization that his driver wasn’t looking at the road, something broke through.
“Sorry to hear that,” Aaron said.
“Thanks.” Robert looked back at the road, an endless straight line through the cornfields of Iowa. “Why are you so opposed to raw cheese?”
“A person I know died of a bacterial infection. She had lupus. The doctor thought she might have drank raw milk or ate unpasteurized cheese.”
“Did they do an autopsy?”
“When someone with lupus dies, there’s no autopsy.”
“That’s rough,” Robert said. ”I do follow FDA regulations–”
“I don’t want to hear about it.”
“I hear you." They had a two day drive ahead and neither of them was going to change the other's mind. "Let’s talk about something else.”
“And remember the plan. After you start shouting at the top of your lungs on the first day of the festival, when a few people have begun recording with their mobiles, take one of my Saint Felicien cheeses and smash it into my face.”
“A win-win like you said. But isn’t that dangerous?”
“The cheese is safe.”
“If you say so.”