Years ago, shortly after advanced age forced Tom’s grandmother from her beloved farm and into town, the women in the family descended upon Grandma’s three-story brick farmhouse to pack her belongings and deep-clean every inch of the house from baseboard to ceiling. I was assigned to the kitchen, starting with the cabinet under the kitchen sink.
Clearing that particular space was an all-together unremarkable task until I got to the back of the cabinet. There, hidden behind the bottles of Fantastik®, Windex®, and Drano®, obscured by the boxes of mouse traps, mothballs, and Brillo® pads, and wedged behind the water and drain pipes, I found a saw. Not a dinky saw. Not a small hand-held hacksaw one might possibly use to cut through chicken bones, but a three-foot long rusted rip saw with half inch teeth from its nose to its handle. A manly saw for manly tasks like building barns or cutting huge branches out of 100-year-old oak trees. What on earth was it doing in Grandma’s kitchen? I couldn’t imagine. I certainly couldn’t imagine tiny, petite, little Grandma ever using the sinister looking implement. It was nearly as tall as she was. I carefully extracted the brute from behind the pipes and stood with it in my hands, staring at it, my mouth open. Then I heard a snicker.
I looked up to see Tom’s cousin, a farm girl, watching me, a smile curling her lips. She waited. My mind raced. What could you possibly use this huge saw for in the kitchen? I have to admit, several of the possibilities—including the ones involving human limbs and deep wells—that danced through my cranium curled my toes. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and blurted, “What in the world is this saw doing here?” By then, others in the kitchen were watching events unfold, and my outburst triggered gales of laughter. Unfortunately for me—however, not unusually when it comes to anything having to do with the farm—I was the only clueless one in the crowd. Luckily, Tom’s cousin was happy to educate me. Too bad she couldn’t stop laughing.
Seems it’s not at all unusual for a farm wife to have just such a saw under her sink. Apparently, she might need it to saw through hog and cow bones when she’s fixing dinner. WHAT?! More laughter. Hey, short of having “City Slicker” tattooed on my forehead, every inch of me screams City Girl. I don’t deny it. And where I come from, meat comes on Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane. It had never occurred to me that anyone ever got that close to the actual animal. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
Which brings me to cheese. Last summer for my birthday, a dear friend, who had listened to me rave on and on multiple times about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and in particular the chapter on cheese-making, very thoughtfully gave me one of the cheese-making kits from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company that Kingsolver talks about in her book. Yes, I freely admit. I did tell this friend (repeatedly) I thought it would be fun to make cheese. Yes, I suppose I did lead her to believe I intended to tackle making a batch of cheese. Was I overstating my intentions? Did I really mean it? Well…
Both Kingsolver and Ricki Carroll, the owner of the Cheesemaking Supply Company, swear making cheese—particularly mozzarella cheese—is child’s play. According to them, you can make up a batch of mozzarella in the afternoon to serve at dinner that night. Uh-huh. I refer you to the paragraph before the last one and the sentence starting, “Where I come from…” only substitute the word “cheese” for “meat” and eliminate the Styrofoam tray. In my world, cheese comes in plastic wrappers. With labels. And nutrition information. Maybe a re-sealable closure. It’s made up in Wisconsin by some fifth-generation Northern European dairy farmer (artisanal) or in a factory (Kraft). In my world, cheese does not come from a pot of hot milk. Jeez. Me and my big mouth. What had I been thinking?
Months passed. Periodically, I’d get the kit out, spread the contents on the counter, read the directions, and then, overwhelmed, shove it all back into the box. From that vantage point, nothing about cheese-making seemed easy. Clearly, Kingsolver and Carroll had been noodling around in the medicine cabinet. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.
Then one day early this year, I was having lunch with some other friends, and we got to talking about Kingsolver’s book. The subject of cheese-making came up—much to my chagrin—and I sheepishly admitted to having been given the kit but never having the cojones to try making the cheese. Being the good friends they are, and always open to being bribed with wine, they offered to come over and help me. So, a few weeks later on a cold winter night, with a big metal pot, metal spoons, strainer, cheesecloth, rennet tablets, enzymes, milk thermometer, rubber gloves, a gallon of whole milk, full wine glasses, and the directions before us, we began.
I’ll not go into the step-by-step cheese-making process here, but suffice it to say—with help from my friends—making cheese really was easy. Admittedly, we had one point where we debated whether or not to continue because—based on the dubious looking contents of the pot—we were certain we had screwed up royally, but the wine gave us courage and we decided to plow ahead anyway. I’m certainly glad we did because less than 20 minutes later we had a real honest-to-goodness blob of mozzarella cheese to show for our efforts. Really. Real mozzarella cheese. We even ate it.
Brief pause for a free cheese-making tip: curds and whey do NOT look appetizing; do not be put off by what appear to be little white lumps floating around in dirty water; if you don’t have little white lumps floating around in dirty water, you’ve screwed up; if you don’t have little white lumps floating around in dirty water, more wine is required—for you, not the cheese.
I’ve since made five more batches of mozzarella. Two of them by myself. It’s made me cocky. I’ve started telling everyone I want to try making cheddar next. I don’t learn.
And now my aunt in Australia (my culinary muse) tells me that in an effort at one-upmanship, she and a friend have enrolled in a class to learn to make Camembert. Damn. I guess I’m going to have to put up or shut up about the cheddar. Time to restock the wine rack and call my friends.
Just know, I may make my own cheese—at least mozzarella—but you’ll NEVER find a rip saw under my sink.