How does cheese fare in literature? References to people eating cheese abound, but most are without any embellishment. Where are the descriptions of cheese, the celebrations of cheese? Apart from Giles Milton’s Edward Trencom’s Nose, here are some extracts, but if you know of any more, do let us know, so that we can include them.
The Debt to Pleasure: John Lanchester
Tarquin Winot is the psycopathic gourmet protagonist in John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. As with all gourmets, cheese is of importance. He has this to say:
Cheese is philosophically interesting as a food whose qualities depend upon the action of bacteria—it is, as James Joyce remarked, “the corpse of milk.” Dead milk, live bacteria. A similar process of contrived spoilage is apparent in the process of hanging game, where some degree of rotting helps to make the meat tender and flavoursome-even if one no longer entirely subscribes to the nineteenth century dictum that a hung pheasant is only ready for eating when the first maggot drops onto the larder floor. With meat and game the bacterial action is a desideratum rather than a necessity, which is what it is in the case of cheese—a point grasped even in Old Testament times, as Job reveals in his interrogation of the Lord “Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?” The process of ripening in cheese is a little like the human acquisition of wisdom and maturity; both processes involve a recognition, or incorporation, of the fact that life is an incurable disease with a hundred per cent mortality rate-a slow variety of death.
Later, as he stalks the target of his obsession and her fiancé, he is momentarily diverted by the cheese counter in an épicerie in St Malo.
… to the right of the counter, in a chilled cabinet frosted with plastic strips creating the effect of a deliberately unopaque and titillatingly peneterable Venetian blind, were the cheeses. No fewer than five different versions of the chief Norman glory, Camembert, an exempla of the profitable ideas sometimes born during periods of historical ferment, as the cheese was invented due to a cross-fertilisation between the ingredients of the Norman regions and the cheese-making techniques of Meaux, as they were exported to Camembert by the young Abbé Gobert, fleeing the Terror in 1792. Also Livarot, Pont L’Evêque, Neufchatel, a Brie, which perhaps to my hypercritical eye looked a little chalky at the centre and a rich array of small local cheeses which I would have liked to stay and enumerate…
Sonnet To A Stilton Cheese: G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton must have been a cheese-lover, as he famously said:
The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese…
To rectify which he wrote Sonnet to a Stilton Cheese.
Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour
And so thou art. Nor losest grace thereby;
England has need of thee, and so have I—
She is a Fen. Far as the eye can scour,
League after grassy league from Lincoln tower
To Stilton in the fields, she is a Fen.
Yet this high cheese, by choice of fenland men,
Like a tall green volcano rose in power.
Plain living and long drinking are no more,
And pure religion reading ‘Household Words’,
And sturdy manhood sitting still all day
Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core;
While my digestion, like the House of Lords,
The heaviest burdens on herself doth lay.
W. H. Auden
As with Chesterton, cheese clearly inspired W.H. Auden, who said:
A poet’s hope: to be,
like some valley cheese,
local, but prized elsewhere."
Treasure Island: R.L. Stevenson
When Jim Hawkins lands on Treasure Island he encounters Ben Gunn, a half-crazed sailor who has been marooned there and living alone, foraging for food.
“Marooned three years agone” he continued “and lived on goats since then, and berries and oysters. Wherever a man is, says I, a man can do for himself. But, mate, my heart is sore for Christian diet. You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you now? No? Well. Many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese—toasted, mostly—and woke up again and here I am.”
“If ever I can get aboard again,” said I, “you shall have cheese by the stone.”
Ben becomes Jim’s ally and helps him defeat the villainous Long John Silver and the other pirates, who want to steal Jim’s map and take the treasure for themselves. When Jim tells the ship’s doctor about him he asks:
"Is this Ben Gunn a man? "
“I do not know sir,” said I. “I am not very sure whether he is sane.”
“If there’s any doubt about the matter, he is,” returned the doctor. “A man who has been three years biting his nails on a desert island, Jim, can’t expect to appear as sane as you or me. It doesn’t lie in human nature. Was it cheese you said he had a fancy for?”
“Yes sir, cheese,” I answered.
“Well Jim,” says he, “just see the good that comes of being dainty about food. You’ve seen my snuff box, haven’t you? And you never saw me take snuff, the reason being that in my snuff box I carry a piece of Parmesan cheese—a cheese made in Italy—very nutritious. Well, that’s for Ben Gunn!”
Stevenson never tells us whether Ben got his Parmesan or his toasted cheese, but we can assume that he did, because he is rescued and returned to live a comfortable life in England.
As for Benn Gunn, he got a thousand pounds, which he spent or lost in three weeks, or to be exact in nineteen days, for he was back begging on the twentieth. Then he was given a lodge to keep exactly as he had feared on the island; and he still lives, a great favourite, though something of a butt with the country boys and a notable singer in church on Sundays and Saints days.
Treasure Island is referred to in each of the Blade Runner films. In the first film, directed by Ridley Scott, an injured colleague in hospital tells Harrison Ford’s character, the Blade Runner Deckard, that he’s reading “An old favourite, Treasure Island.”
In Blade Runner 2049, when he meets the new Blade Runner, now a state of the art replicant Joe/KD6.3.7 played by Ryan Gosling, for the first time, Deckard, still played by Harrison Ford, says:
“Wouldn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you now, would you boy?”
“Treasure Island,” replies Gosling.
“He reads, that’s good” says Ford. “Me too. Not much else to do around here at night anymore. Many’s the night I dream of cheese—toasted mostly.”
Fans have debated the significance of this small piece of dialogue. Deckard has been marooned in a crumbling mansion in a futuristic Las Vegas, so he was identifying with Ben Gunn, as well as making a reference to the first film. At any rate, I like the fact that the director Denis Villeneuve cleverly picked up on the tiny reference in Ridley Scott’s original film and hopefully pointed a generation of young people in the direction of this terrific classic.