Saturday, August 28, 2010


My girlfriend joined me for a few days in Paris, whereupon my ability to communicate with the French people was enhanced ten-fold. Here’s how it worked. I would walk in to a boulangerie with purpose and charm, greeting the proprietor with a hearty ‘Bonjour!’ Naturally, the good mannered Boulanger would ask me something completely incomprehensible in French, at which point I would smile and look over at Meryl nervously. After a significantly awkward pause, Meryl would explain that I was a complete idiot and that she would take a baguette. This began to happen less and less as time went on (I’m pretty sure) and one morning I even completed the entire transaction myself, in flawless French. As I strolled out onto the Champs D’elyse, radiant with my Boulanger-etiquette victory, I looked back at the waving baker with a big smile and shouted ‘Bonjour!’…so close…

On the cheese front, my friend and host, Anne Horowitz was adamant that we have a taste-off between a decent industrial Camembert and a raw milk artisanal version. While the pasteurized version curled my nose hairs with its delightful stench, I have to admit that the raw-milk version was earthier, more putrid, and had more distinct flavors. The putridity was really emphasized when, three days later, Meryl and I stuck the raw milk Camembert in my backpack for a picnic. The cheese settled in my pack right up against my back, and after a sweaty morning of trekking through hot and humid paris streets, what we had left at lunch was liquid toe-jam. Pidgeons dropped from the sky when we opened the bag. The aroma of toe is not an original sentiment and neither is it unsubstantiated biologically. The poet Leon-Paul Fargue called it “les pieds de Dieu” or “Gods feet”. This heavenly heady aroma is attributed biologically to S-methyl thiopropionate, a product of the metabolic breakdown of protein by Brevibacterium linens, a relative of Brevibacterium epidermis which breaks down protein between your toes to produce that foot smell (Dyer, 2004; Paxson, 2008).

At this point you may be thinking, “ewe, I hope he stops there”, but guess what, it gets better. Not only do we have bacteria in our digestive system, on our skin and in our sebaceous glands (yeast in these glands is a cause of dandruff), our cells are actually outnumbered ten to one by the microbes we carry around with us. An average person has 1013 human cells and 1014 microbial cells, in other words, 90% of our cells are microbial! Worse than that, our DNA is outnumbered by the DNA of our “friends” by 100 to 1 (Gill et al. 2006). Taking into account more and more of these findings over the last year has made me sympathetic to what professor Heather Paxson has dubbed the post-Pasteurian ethos (Pasteur, the French guy responsible for germ theory of disease and pasteurization). In her article Microbiopolitics, Paxon describes the outlook as moving “beyond an antiseptic attitude to embrace mold and bacteria as allies” (18). While recognizing that a consensus on this anti-antiseptic nutritional outlook has not yet been achieved in the scientific/medical community, this is what gave me the courage to try a bite of the soupy mess before ditching it for a delicious Roquefort from a fromager in the mouffetard. It was a good choice…

Sources cited:

Paxson, Heather (2008). Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States. Cultural Anthropology, (23)1, pp. 15–47.

Dyer, Betsy D. A Field Guide to Bacteria. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.


  1. Despite my love for all things fermented, I never could get into the toe-jam cheese. Maybe this has to do with my rainy Saturday when my brother and I came across these weird plastic folders that were kept in storage in the attic space of an old home. Due to their awful stench, we affectionately named them "The Limburger Files". Since then, I've never been able to appreciate the putrid side of cheese. But if you keep up with this fabulously detailed blog, you may have a convert out of me. Live it up, my friend! -Tav

  2. Haha, thanks Tav! Good luck getting over that phobia, I think it will open up new worlds for you...

  3. Brian- I never knew you had such a fear of stinky cheese... I hope Max will help you get over it!

    And Max- I love reading this blog and pretending like I'm doing all the awesome stuff you're doing! Way to kick ass... keep the updates coming, its awesome!

    Mally =]