Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Zen and the art of cheese making

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the popular book I’m borrowing this title from. But it’s an appropriate (and catchy!) description of my experience last month at the Institute of Urban Homesteading’s cheese making intensive.

For a day and a half on an unseasonably sunny January weekend, I joined seven other amateur cheese enthusiasts at a home in North Oakland. I sat in the living room as people arrived and got settled, waiting for Ruby, our instructor and the founder of the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland, to get the cheese making intensive and our mini-learning community started.

The stairs up to Ruby’s home are tiled with mosaics calling for happy thoughts and positive intention for each of the dozen or so steps. The best way to describe Ruby’s home, even before really meeting her, is that it’s clearly personal. There are shelves and shelves of books, and art everywhere. When I find out later that Ruby is an artist, I wonder which pieces are hers. I walk through two rooms to get to the kitchen, which is bright, brighter than the rest of this floor, both because of the sunlight and it’s light colors and hard surfaces in contrast to the soft textures of different fabrics throughout the living areas. Ruby is warm and friendly, and no-nonsense. As I enter she is explaining to another student why the milk she brought won’t work for the class. The student apologizes repeatedly and Ruby assures her she doesn’t need to feel bad, but also tells her where to go later to get the kind of milk we need. Ruby is unapologetic in her correction. I like Ruby, and I like being in her home.

Once everyone had arrived, we introduced ourselves: my name is Bettina, I live not far from here in Oakland, and a special thing about cheese and me is that last spring I got to do a cheese assembly demo at Harley Farms in Pescadero. People shared their experiences growing up with goats, failed attempts at making ricotta cheese and love for cheese in general.


I’m glad we weren’t asked why we were taking the class during these introductions. I am terrible at lying, and, even knowing it might make people uncomfortable, would have probably awkwardly told the truth: I needed a distraction this particular weekend. Without something to do, I would have most likely sat at home thinking about things I didn’t want to think about and being sad. That said, it makes me pretty anxious to put myself in new situations with new people, so I tried to find a friend to attend the class with me, to no avail. I finally signed up only a few days before the class, alone. Once I had registered and paid, I immediately felt a little relief. I had taken a slightly scary step, and one that, once I made the commitment (i.e., the non-refundable fee), I knew would make me happier for that weekend even if the anxiety of a new situation made me uncomfortable in the moment.


The first pots of milk were waiting for us when we filed into the kitchen. Ruby told us we were going to jump into our first two projects with little information, and that we needed to trust her when she promised she’d explain once we got started.

Ruby more than kept her promise about explaining things. Every lesson built on the last, by design no doubt. One of those pots became yogurt (some of which became yogurt cheese), and the other was the start of a batch of feta. Ruby explained cultures by making us think about the Greek roots of the words, and followed the etymology and science with simple explanations for remembering their applications. We made ricotta. Ricotta is one of my favorite cheeses. We talked about equipment and resources and dos and don’ts and what were really dos and dont’s. We ate. We cleaned. We split into groups to make mozzarella and queso fresco, and looked around Ruby’s “mini farm” of rabbits and bantam hens while we had short breaks to let the curds sit. We watched, cheered and helped each other. Ruby explained as we started these two projects, that even though we could each only work on one, each cheese had something special about it. There was a lot special about this class.

At the end of our first day, we all shared our reflections. The word that came to my mind was “accessible.” We spent five hours working with dairy and at the end of it, I felt confident I could go home and replicate any of those projects with ease (once I bought the just-a-couple-more pieces of equipment I needed)(note to self: you still need to buy some equipment).

Ricotta draining
Queso fresco into the press
Rabbits in Ruby's backyard


One of my classmates reflected on his gratitude. He talked about his gratitude for learning and his appreciation for the milk we were using, and that he was reflecting on the life cycles of the cows and the plants that provide it. I don’t usually think like this, but I leaned into this idea. Maybe not so much because I was grateful for the milk (I probably should be more grateful for the milk), but because I was grateful for what this experience was giving me.

For many, myself included, making—cheese, crafts, robots, whatever—is a very satisfying and relaxing process. Seeing something come together by the work of your own hands is satisfying. It’s a win and it’s order when other things in life might not be either.

I know people who say they don’t like to bake because they don’t like to follow the steps, and prefer the freedom that cooking gives them. Making cheese is more like baking in this regard—you have to follow the steps. I don’t mind following steps, it feels like a ritual. Completing the ritual bears rewards. I don’t have to make decisions, I just have to do. I know from the start that if I do correctly, I’ll almost always get my expected outcome. I both have and lack control. Sometimes my mind clears as I go through the motions. I think it’s the closest I come to meditating.


I got home a little before 6pm, exhausted. I had been skeptical when I got the pre-class email from Ruby suggesting we not make plans for the Saturday evening between sessions, due to the amount of information we’d have to digest; Ruby was of course right about that. I had sought a distraction and that was what I got. I fought to stay awake past 8pm, and succeeded only because I was watching a weird movie and texting with a pretty lady.

Sunday morning I set out 30 minutes before our meeting time with my backpack on and tennis shoes laced, to walk the 1.3 miles to class. I passed Oaklanders who greeted me, “it’s going to be a beautiful day!”

I replied, “it already is!”

Morning walks on beautiful days should not be taken for granted.


When we all arrived Sunday morning, Ruby told us she had started to make the brie the night before and ended up with, well, not brie; later, she told us, we would talk about what do with a “failure.” She showed us some cheese that looked like a cross between ricotta and fromage blanc—smoother than ricotta but not quite as smooth as fromage blanc. We tasted it, and noted the white mold characteristic of brie, even without the brie texture. Someone asked, “Are you going to tell us what to do with the failure?” Ruby replied, “That’s it. You eat it. It’s not brie but it’s still cheese.” Turns out that quite often when you “fail” at making a specific cheese, you still have cheese. Sometimes things don’t turn out how we plan, but that doesn’t mean they can’t turn out ok.


Energized from one day of learning behind me, I approached the remainder of the class with confidence and even more enthusiasm. I volunteered more—to drain the curds and flavor the yogurt cheese and wash the wine cups. I took fewer notes and instead better watched and experienced the work we were doing. I stood closer when I couldn’t see. I answered when we were quizzed on what we had learned. I had great conversations with my classmates. I went for seconds and thirds of eating straight cultured butter and didn’t care.

Each day of the intensive scheduled time for a “communal feast.” We ate some of the cheeses we had made and we brought food to share. Everyone took a role in helping to prepare the meal or clean up after it. For strangers in a new kitchen, we worked together well. One person complimented the technique another used in slicing the baguette; everyone agreed the person in charge of seasoning the ricotta with herbs and garlic did an exceptional job; people exchanged recipes for the homemade goods they brought; there was wine. After our feast on the second day, Ruby asked if we were all “feeling fat and sassy?” The top I wore that day read, “Fat and Sassy Beer.”

Seasoned ricotta
Our first feast...
...and our second


Cheese making is transformative. You see a chemical transformation take place right in front of you as the milk separates into curds and whey. And for me, at least for this weekend, cheese making class was transformative.

I started the class seeking a distraction and wary of the feelings I was trying to avoid by taking said class, uncomfortable and shy spending the day with people I didn’t know, and knowing so very little about the topics of cheese making and homesteading. I was out of my comfort zone on many levels. I left the class happy, re-charged. I left confident I could go home and make any of the cheeses and dairy products we had learned to make, but also knowing I’d have to work on my patience with some. I left feeling empowered that I had taken control of my emotions, even if just for a few hours on a few days. I left feeling fat and sassy and satiated and safe.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Best things I read this week, Feb. 1-7

Ya gotta read a lot if you want to write a little. Here are some of the best things I read this past week:

"Why Mindy Kaling Refuses to Talk about Race--and Why I Care So Much"
from Talking Points Memo (@TPM)

"Reasons you were not promoted that are entirely unrelated to gender"
from McSweeney's (@mcsweeneys)

If you're as much of a fan of fonts and typefaces as I am, "27 fonts* (give or take) that explain your world" does not disappoint. Don't miss the subtle shade in #8. 
from Vox (@voxdotcom)

And on a similarly nerdy note, "One Wikipedia Editor Has Spent Years Fixing a Single Grammatical Error."
from Gawker (@gawker)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Best things I read this week, Jan. 25-31

Ya gotta read a lot if you want to write a little. Here are some of the best things I read this past week:
"The Whiteness of 'Public Radio Voice'"
by Chenjerai Kumanyika (@catchatweetdown)

"The Myth of the Gay Community'"
from The Atlantic (@theatlantic)

In "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck," Mark Manson equates "Doesn't give a fuck" not to indifference, but to "doesn’t care about adversity in the face of goals, doesn’t care about pissing some people off to do what is right or important or noble."
from Mark Manson (@iammarkmanson)

Answering "Why People Hate Tess Munster (and Other Happy Fat People)," Jes the Militant Baker discusses the concepts of Body Currency and Body Love ("not just for fat people"!).
from xojane (@xojanedotcom)