Breast milk cheese? Really?

If you think it sounds nasty (and I did), it's time once again to consider the real purpose of boobs

By Kate Harding
March 4, 2010 12:43AM (UTC)
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The person who sent me a link to this New York magazine item about chef Daniel Angerer making cheese from his wife's breast milk titled the e-mail "Today in Gross." My kneejerk reaction, I must admit, was similar. But about ten seconds of reflection brought me to the conclusion that I was being ridiculous. If you're anti-cheese in general, you might have a legitimate claim to being squicked out by Angerer's experiment. I, however, adore not only cheeses made from cow, sheep or goat milk -- these are somehow less off-putting than the kind designed for my own species? -- but cheese that smells like diseased feet and derives its flavor from ribbons of mold. I am perfectly fine -- in fact, frequently delighted -- with a food whose basic recipe is: 1) curdle milk; 2) add bacteria; 3) stir in enzymes from the fourth stomach lining of an unweaned calf; 4) wait for it to get old. But human milk? Ewwww!

So that got my feminist spidey-senses tingling. Breast milk is a safe and nutritious food -- we let babies eat it, am I right? Yet people -- including me, for those first ten seconds -- react as if Angerer's making cheese from sweat or blood or urine here. On the one hand, that's probably understandable; in general, fluids that issue from the human body evoke some pretty strong and not unreasonable food taboos -- against eating excrement or worse, engaging in cannibalism. But that argument doesn't have much staying power, since ten seconds is actually a lot longer than it takes to remember that breast milk is meant to be eaten.


In our culture, though, it's only meant to be eaten under certain circumstances. First, the only acceptable market for it is babies -- little ones, at that. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and a mix of breast milk and other foods "up to two years of age or beyond." But American moms start getting judgy eyebrows cocked in their direction if they breastfeed for an entire year. Go much longer than that, and you're some kind of freak -- at best, just a little too granola and woo-woo for your neighbors' tastes, but at worst, so reckless and/or mentally disturbed you'd rather give your kid a bunch of sexual hang-ups than let him or her move on to the next stage. Because of course it's a given that once children are old enough to talk, they automatically join the rest of us in understanding that breasts are for sex, not food. And because we all know that, and we all know sex is dirty, the next rule is: Breastfeeding should only be done in the privacy of home. If that's absolutely impossible, then mothers who need to feed their hungry children in public should naturally have the good sense to be modest -- even vaguely ashamed -- about it. I mean, given that sexual pleasure is the real function of breasts, for most of us, the thought of consuming breast milk is like the thought of consuming ... oh hey, I think I get it now. And that's messed up.

I'm not saying, of course, that all enlightened, feminist adults should be clamoring to try breast milk cheese to express our support for lactating mothers and reinforce the life-sustaining purpose of boobies. You don't need to like the thought of eating it any more than you like the thought of eating strained peas from a tiny jar -- cultural B.S. aside, most of us do give up mother's milk sooner rather than later. I'm just saying, the gross-out factor of one shouldn't be any greater than the other. It's just food. And the fact that many of us regard breast milk as something else -- something far more provocative and repulsive than a food we simply don't care for as adults -- is directly related to the continued treatment of nursing moms as slutty exhibitionists. Which, you know, really needs to stop.

Breasts -- like penises and vaginas and toaster ovens and Swiss Army knives -- can serve more than one purpose without causing mass confusion or threatening all we hold dear. So if, like Angerer and his wife, you've got a freezer full of milk that the baby can't eat fast enough and a bank can't take, why shouldn't you use it up? From Angerer's perspective as a chef and a father, "To throw it out would be like wasting gold." I'm not sure about that, but at the very least, I'm pretty sure my love of Roquefort means I'm in no position to judge.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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