Try Breast Milk; It’s the Cheesiest!

Try Breast Milk; It’s the Cheesiest!

For four short days at the end of April, Miriam Sun, graduate student turned (unintentional?) good-natured rabble-rouser, opened The Lady Cheese Shop. Not to be confused with a Paula Deen-type venture, The Lady Cheese Shop was a place where curious and adventurous folks could sample human cheese — cheese made from human milk. Sun, a student in NYU’s Interactive Technology Program, had begun her Human Cheese Project in 2010, and the shop was the latest display of her research and work.

The press release touted “three delicious human cheeses” available for tasting. Made from the milk of three different women, the cheeses would be accented with “food pairings inspired by the terroir of each cheese, the cultural and microbial habitat of each woman — created in collaboration with Chef Sarah Hymanson.” Alternative uses for human milk had been creating headlines, from Baby Gaga ice cream and at a Chelsea-based restaurant covered here at Poor Taste in a recent Gastromommy column, to Sun’s own project — creating controversy from commenters and reporters alike in articles from Serious Eats, New York Daily News, and Grist.

According to Poor Taste’s New York Editor, Riddhi Shah, who checked out the cheese shop and sampled all cheeses, “It tasted pretty normal actually; I wouldn’t have been able to tell that it was breast milk cheese if I didn’t already know.” Shah, a vegetarian, attended the event one night with her husband. We caught up over a quick G-chat, and when asked about the event she said:

“Several people refused to try the cheeses – she [Miriam Sun] was very impressed that I just popped pieces without a fuss.  People were asking why we’re okay with consuming animal milk but not human milk. I’m a vegetarian, so I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about these distinctions about what we can and cannot eat, I think I’m pretty aware of the hypocrisies that we have in what we eat; when I ask my husband why he’s squeamish about the idea of eating dog meat as opposed to beef, he doesn’t have a coherent answer. For me, if I’m okay with eating dairy, human breast milk falls in the same category.”

Questions regarding ethics and sustainability dominated the blogs and reader comments. Social taboos and animal rights angles were more often than not, intelligently explored. Everyone wanted to know who would eat it, should we eat it, how would it taste? Catching up with Sun post-show over email helped to answer some of these questions. To get started, in regards to the general feeling of the show, Sun wrote: “The response was overwhelming!  Many people came, many tried the cheese, plenty chose not to.  A lot of fascinating conversation ensued.”

Poor Taste: Can you describe the tastes of the different cheeses, and draw any similarities to other types of cheese?

Miriam Sun: 1: Midtown Smoke

This fresh one is so good it’s almost obscene.  Made from the milk of a kind young Chinese mother living in midtown Manhattan, and a goat hailing from Northern Vermont, this cheese is smoky, creamy, and just pure heaven. Between working long hours in private equity and eating lots of sweets and spices, this mother has retained hints of her pregnant plumpness, producing a creamy milk almost musky in flavor. Midtown Smoke starts you off sweet and then blasts you with flavor, with a smooth lingering finish leaving hints of walnut on your tongue.

2: West Side Funk

This cheese stinks. It really does. But pay no heed to its gamey scent; just savor the flavor! The human-cow blend — light on the cow, heavy on the human — is soft and spreadable, imparting a complex funk somewhere in between butter, yellow taxi cabs, and wafting wavers of street cart smells. The meaty, alcohol-tinged diet of the Manhattan mother (a stay-at-home mom that took her turn as both a corporate lawyer and a chef) kicks in quickly, providing a deliciously dizzying tangy finish to this pudgy little wonder. Reminiscent of Gorgonzola, but with a New York City flavor all its own.

3: Wisconsin Chew

Just pop this fun little bitty in your mouth and chew away!  These tough little cheeses are as delectable to taste as they are delightful to eat. Made from two wonderful milks, a happy field-loving Columbia County cow milk tangos with the milk of a sweet lawyer’s assistant from Wisconsin, this human is excited to become part of what she considers a “more acceptable and personal” cheese.  Her mostly organic diet full of fresh vegetables makes for a healthy, creamy milk — and boy does it come through in this darling little cheese!  Marinated in a little spiced olive oil, the result is somewhat explosive, the saltiness awakening your senses and the chewy, dense little cheese riding out the hints of black pepper.

PT: Can you talk a little about the cultural and microbial habitats of each woman, along with any other information about the women?

MS: One mother is from Chelsea, a stay at home mom, former lawyer, and chef. She eats a lot of spicy food, drinks alcohol, largely organic diet, lots of meat. She spends her time largely in downtown Manhattan – clean water, not always the cleanest air. Another mother is from midtown Manhattan, a private equity lawyer. A Chinese woman, young, first time mother with a bubble personality. She works long hours in a midtown office and eats a lot on the go. The third mother is from suburban Wisconsin.  A lawyer’s assistant, she has a moderately organic diet and drives a lot.

PT: How did you find women willing to participate? Are there any ethical questions posed?

MS: I posted an ad on an online marketplace for breast milk, where women regularly sell their milk that I was looking for milk to make cheese.  The women got in contact with me. There are certainly a number of ethical questions posed:  Who is the woman? Is this exploiting her? Is this empowering her? On one hand a woman has the right to use her body, and what her body produces, in any way she chooses. One of the mothers actually described that she didn’t feel so different pumping her milk for it to be made into cheese than when she used to cook pasta in a restaurant for people. On the other hand one can imagine the host of problematic ethical issues that might arise if human cheese were to become a large scale, centralized and industrialized market, in the way most of our other food has gone. I think about the women in very difficult situations in poor countries renting their wombs to first world couples. The other issue to point out, is if human cheese in indeed such a problematic ethical concern, what about goat or cow cheese? They are mammals just like us, and they are not even consenting to provide their milk for cheese — we also tend to treat them not always so kindly. Does posing a human in place of a cow shed some light on some ethical issues there?

Looking further down the road, Sun’s plans for the future include working on a cookbook to share recipes and a bit about the journey and the questions of making human cheese, on the terms of breast milk, and what people choose to do with it. A recent article in Wired explores the “booming” market for buying and selling breast milk. As of now, the product is considered food and isn’t under the same scrutiny as other bodily fluids, tissues, and organs when it comes to regulations. Along those terms, it might be possible to set up a breast milk shop next to your favorite booth at the farmers market, or a roadside stand peddling milk and cheese. It’s clear we’ve barely squeezed the teat when it comes to breast milk dos and don’ts. As for the cheese at the Lady Cheese Shop, Sun asked “Which woman’s cheese would you prefer?” What do you think you’d try?