Brave cheese samplers photo by Bonnie Hulkower
Would you eat human cheese? This was a question I posed to my friends at brunch yesterday. Most of the group seemed repulsed by the idea. My friend Dan wasn't game even though he has eaten rat in the Philippines. My friend Lindsay has a toddler, and said she would only consider consuming her own breast milk. It seemed strange to me, considering how adventurous many of these foodies are, that human breast milk is taboo. Is eating cheese made from human's milk somehow less healthy, natural or moral than eating cow or goat cheese? Assuming that the breast milk used for cheese is in excess of what the mother's baby needed, and the mother was tested for diseases (more thoroughly than most cows are) would you eat breast milk cheese, if given the opportunity? I had to answer this question myself at Michael Mut's gallery this past weekend.
At the "Human Cheese Project's" opening, Miriam Simun, an artist and graduate student in NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program had set up "The Lady Cheese Shop." Curious pedestrians and daring foodies gathered in the small Avenue C gallery to find out what all the fuss was about.
I had been at the EcoBizNYC Awards Ceremony earlier that evening, where Michael Mut received an award for his commitment to sustainability. When Michael accepted the award, he announced that his gallery was having an opening later that evening, but didn't describe the exhibit. I stopped by the gallery on my way home, to support the local arts. I was feeling peckish, so in addition to a glass of wine, I approached the food table, noticing the cheeses and beautifully presented food by chef Sarah Hymanson.
Three types of cheeses were offered: "Sweet Airy Equity ," "City Funk," and "Wisconsin Bang." It was only while reading the description of "Wisconsin Bang," a mozzarella-style cheese made from "two wonderful milks" a goat and a woman from Wisconsin who eats a mostly organic diet, did it dawn on me that the "organic diet" being described was that of an actual female human and not the artist anthropomorphizing the goat.
I gulped when I realized what I was actually eating. For a moment, I felt a bit queasy. I had not tasted breast milk since I was three. I must have liked it then. As I took another bite of cheese, I thought about the flavor. It was creamy, perhaps a bit more watery than other mozzarella, but if no one had mentioned it, I would not have noticed a difference.
The cheeses were paired with foods that reflected the diets of the three women who donated their breast milk. "Wisconsin Bang" was paired with beets and other pickled vegetables, "Sweet Airy Equity" was a ricotta-style cheese made from a mother who has a sweet tooth, so the cheese was served on top of orange spice cake, finally "City Funk," a blue cheese, was from a Chelsea mother, who eats meat and drinks alcohol. I didn't care for the "City Funk," not because I was turned off by the beef and booze or the human element, but because I don't care for stinky cheese.
Most of the people I encountered who were hesitant to try the cheeses were wary because of health concerns. Some of them had heard about the London ice cream store that had its breast milk ice cream confiscated over fears that it could contain hepatitis.
The ice cream, called Baby Gaga, in homage to Lady Gaga, by the Icecreamists, is made by combining a liter of donated breast milk with vanilla and lemon zest. The ice cream is currently back on the shelves in the London shop after the British Council ran health tests and found no problems. (But the ice cream makers now need to content with a lawsuit from Lady Gaga).
There was also a controversy over breast milk products in the U.S. last year. Breast milk cheese was served briefly at chef Daniel Angerer's Klee Brasserie, before the NYC Department of Health sent the chef a cease and desist letter that stated "cheese made from breast milk is not for public consumption."
The breast milk used for "The Lady Cheese Shop" was tested for diseases, and the lab results were displayed nearby in the gallery. The breast milk was also heated to high enough temperatures to be pasteurized. For some reason, I wasn't concern about the health risk. I had even remembered reading that breast milk had been recently linked with preventing cancer, so I figured why not? Lady Gaga's lawyers called the Baby Gaga ice cream "deliberately provocative and, to many people, nausea-inducing." But what do you think? Delicacy or Disgusting?