Human Breast Cheese: The Latest Art Form?
What do human breast-milk cheese, fried rat-on-a-stick, and the TurBacon (a bird in a bird in a bird in a pig) have in common? Edible obscenities might be the first answer that comes to mind, but it’s not the one I’m looking for.
Last February, chef Daniel Angerer of Chelsea’s Klee Brasserie milked his wife to make human cheese hors d’œuvres at his own private party. Since then, online publications haven’t stopped arguing over whether or not breast cheese is reasonable, humane, tasty or just too weird to discuss — let alone taste.
After having sampled breast cheese, The Village Voice’s food critic, Robert Sietsema, listed reasons why the concoction is reprehensible. He wrote, “Breast-milk cheese forces babies to compete with hipster foodies for mother’s milk, and a baby can’t punch a foodie in the face.” He later added, “Less than 100 years ago, you could get tuberculosis from drinking cow’s milk, and other diseases like hepatitis C or even AIDS may be transmissible by milk, too.”
In an interview with Fox News, Angerer said of the breast cheese, “The people who’ve tried it so far say the same thing, which is, ‘Oh, it tastes like cheese.’” And so, while the taste isn’t alarming, that it comes from human breasts, that human milk isn’t subjected to FDA and Department of Health scrutiny like other milks are, and that women are ostensibly treated like cows is hard to digest.
If I’ve learned anything from the horror film “The Human Centipede,” it’s that any noun preceded by “The Human” will likely entail something vulgar. Several problems result from human cheese, the first among them being that it just sounds gross. Cheese enthusiast that I am, I would only try the stuff hesitantly, and then blame all future illnesses on my eating it.
The curious thing about breast cheese is how easily it disturbs people and how it’s inspired so much repulsion in so little time.
In foodie culture, a dish’s aesthetic qualities are emphasized; chefs and critics place significant value on plate presentation. And this makes sense because, though I enjoy Pakistani curries that resemble vomit, a part of me wishes they looked as good as they tasted. Anyone who’s watched “Top Chef” can recall a moment when judge Tom Colicchio criticized a contestant for having slopped food on a plate without taking the time to make it beautiful.
But lately, pretty presentation has been amplified in another facet of food art: the avant-garde. Molecular gastronomy (whether featured on “Top Chef” or on other shows like “Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen”) observes the chemistry of cooking and, as with WD-50’s chef Wylie Dufresne, yields dishes like “aerated foie, pickled beet, mashad plum, brioche” and “Wagyu flap steak, barley, malt, turnip.” While neither of these would satisfy say, your burger craving, they would certainly stimulate you intellectually.
Outlandish and expensive as the meals are, they’re meant to be appetizing, even if you can’t identify what’s on your plate. But the dark side of artistic eating — rather, the side closest to breast cheese — is akin to Dadaist, anti-art sentiments. Repulsive dishes manage to destroy food art, or our perceptions of food’s origins and tastes.
Examples of this category include chef Andrew Zimmern’s findings on the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods” (i.e. fried rats, tarantula lollipops, sliced pig fat and teriyaki cockroaches), or on “Epic Meal Time”’s YouTube cooking show. Consider the episode in which host Harley Morenstein stuffed turkey, duck, chicken, Cornish hen, quail, bacon-croissant stuffing, “meat glue,” and a great deal of bacon inside of a pig, which was then covered in more bacon and a buttery Dr. Pepper glaze (79,046 calories).
Both programs leave us in awe of their disgusting foodstuffs. I’ve yet to run into somebody who would willingly eat a rat, and the gastrointestinal perils of the TurBacon probably outweigh the tastiness. These dishes (breast-cheese included), quite like what the Sex Pistols or “Waiting for Godot” have done in their respective circles, change our perceptions of how we ought to enjoy food. Each gives us scenes of other people eating things that we know, deep down, shouldn’t be eaten.
In an age of artisanal cupcakes, all food can’t be pleasant. What if you ate something whose origins you knew were vile, like a sauteed sewer rat, a fat-soaked bird-pig, or cheese that’s come from a stranger’s breasts? Your stomach would be fine, but your mind might suffer. Breast cheese, to me, feels like the truest manifestation of food art, because it succeeds in making participants uncomfortable in a way that only the best art can.
Breast cheese chefs may not be making people uneasy on purpose (not yet, anyway). But when you hold food to artistic standards, discomfort is inevitable.