I did not set out to become greener-than-thou. And it’s a good thing, too, because as a Martha Stewart of Green Living, I’m a failure.
We’ve all met those types, haven’t we? I call them the Buddhist earth-mother-with-a-trust-fund people. If you’ve learned how to grow your own tomatoes, they’ve learned how to grow all-organic heritage tomatoes from an endangered variety that has twice the vitamin C of other tomatoes, and how to can enough of them to last them through the apocalypse.
And they do it all while wearing organic cotton yoga pants, grinding their own baby food, and never watching television or using deodorant–or needing to. (That type of woman’s armpits never smell. Except, possibly, very faintly of patchouli.)
I admit to being seriously intimidated by these mountains of serene competency. I run into them all the time at farmers’ markets and at our local CSA–which is one of the reasons I like farm stands so much. (They tend to be run by plump women in polyester, wearing out-of-fashion eyeglasses. I love those women; they are Of My People. They remind me of me.)
All joking aside, there is a smugness problem in the world of sustainable living, and I like to think I’m not the only person who has been known to go allover shy when exposed to the faint tinge of condescension I sense in the air when I visit the native habitat of local sustainability experts. Like, biking to work is cool, right? But it has not escaped my attention that there are those for whom only biking to work on a fair-trade bamboo bicycle with ergonomic handlebars is really cool. And those of us trundling along on second-hand Schwinns don’t cut it in some circles–especially if we can’t repair our own bikes, or have to walk them up steep hills.
So you’ll perhaps be reassured to learn that, despite the seriousness of my efforts to cut myself loose from eating factory farmed food for a host of environmental and ethical reasons, I am not going to achieve graceful earth mother status in this lifetime.
I proved that quite conclusively yesterday, scorching the cheese.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that my quest this summer, to learn to make my own cheese so that I can have an affordable source of that food that comes from local, organically-raised and well-treated cows, could be understood to be a little on the Extreme Green edge of normalcy. And I didn’t start out to wander so far from the safe suburban verges of the shopping mall culture where I was reared. But…
- When I gave up single use plastic, I began noticing how much other food was packaged in plastic. Unnecessarily so. So I began buying more whole foods, and bringing them home in reusable cloth bags from the store.
- Which made me begin looking out for more sources of food that wasn’t pre-packaged… which made me notice more fresh and local produce.
- Which made me start buying (and harvesting) more of that.
- And noticing how much better it was than what the supermarket was selling.
- Even in the “fresh produce” aisle.
- Which made me want to preserve the local food for winter.
- Which led to learning to make pickles. And jams.
- Which led to noticing that we have good local organic milk available. In glass bottles that get reused!
- Which made me notice that my cheese comes from all over the place. And a lot of it is probably full of all the chemicals and crap that’s no longer in the rest of my food.
- Plus, milk production on a large scale is highly polluting–but the dairy industry locally isn’t. Lots of very nice goats and cows on small farms.
- But locally produced cheese costs about as much as a used Mercedez-Benz.
- Which led to… attempting to make my own cheese.
Actually, I first experimented with cheese making in April, making up a small batch of panir, the cheese that may be familiar to fans of Indian food. Panir is an exceptionally easy cheese to make; I followed directions I found on You Tube, and it worked just fine.
My goals for this summer are more ambitious. I want to learn how to make, not just panir, but cream cheese (which we use in large quantities) and feta cheese, which I can substitute for some of the local-but-not-organic cheddar cheese we also rely on.
The gold standard would be to be able to make our own parmesan–but hard cheeses are notoriously fussier to make, and I realize that may not work out. Still, friends who are ahead of me on the sustainability learning curve reassure me that cream cheese and maybe even feta are within my reach.
So I ordered a book and some cheese-making supplies online. I did not sign up for classes, for the same reason I don’t buy local organic goat’s milk cream cheese–I’m not made of money, people! I don’t have a trust fund! And I followed a recipe for panir–just to refresh my memory on the whole cheese-making process–from Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making, expecting it to come out even better than panir made by following random directions from You Tube.
As expected, Ricki’s recipe and directions were marvelous; she is the acknowledged queen of American home cheese making. The curds separated out wonderfully–they were cleaner and larger than in my previous attempt, and seemed to cling together more firmly, too.
There was just one problem. Ricki’s recipe called for a gallon of milk–not the six or seven cup batch I’d made previously.
And so I used a gallon of milk. Which meant using a bigger pot.
Alas, that bigger pot had a thinner bottom than the one I’d used previously. And where Ricki’s directions very helpfully called for “stirring often to prevent scorching,” with my pot and that much milk, even stirring constantly did not prevent scorching.
At the end of that wonderful process, my beautiful, big, clean, firm curds pressed into a lovely block of completely inedible cheese, and I spent several minutes storming around the kitchen, hurling small kitchen tools, and exercising a vocabulary my sainted mother would almost certainly prefer I did not possess.
Every bit of that lovely, organic local milk tasted horrible from the scorching I’d given it. And every bit of that lovely, inedible, organic local panir is now making up one of the most expensive layers of compost in our heap.
I made my husband take me out for a nice, artificially-flavored, highly-processed soft-serve ice cream to get the taste of failure and burnt milk out of my mouth.
This, this, ladies and gentlemen, is what a learning curve looks like.
With the exception of trust-fund earth mothers, all of us look graceless when we try to do new things. At some time or other, the gardens that we plant get taken over by weeds, our free-range chickens get eaten by racoons, we learn that the carefully and lovingly preserved canned raspberries taste just awful, the jam didn’t set, and the pickles turned out flabby and too salty.
Which is why we need to be community to one another. We do need to learn new, different ways to live. We do need to revive old skills–by which I don’t necessarily mean that all of us need to make cheese at home, or preserve potatoes and carrots for the winter. But some of us do. We are far too reliant on a food system that is reducing the fertility of our soils, polluting our waterways, exposing us to increasingly dangerous antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and which is in turn utterly reliant on petroleum resources that are not infinite.
I am going to try again to make cheese–either with a thicker-bottomed pot or with a smaller, scaled-down batch of milk. And I’m going to try making my own poultry sausage, canning tomatoes, and getting through the winter on stored local produce. I may well conclude that some or even all of these skills are too much for me, and that the effort to practice them isn’t compatible with working full-time, having a life, and having friends.
Or maybe, like baking my own bread, building a raised bed garden, and making raspberry jam, some of these skills will be keepers–things I do for joy as well as to lighten my burden on the earth.
But I promise you this: I will not pretend I haven’t spent time sweaty, confused, frustrated, and swearing like a stevedore along the way.
I don’t even own a pair of yoga pants.
ADDENDUM: For a look at a more successful local cheese-maker, visit the site of my friend and inspiration Beth. (I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have yoga pants either, though I strongly suspect her of making her own baby-food when her kids were little. They seem to be turning out just fine, anyway.)