Just Good Food

by John Ryan


Teaching Your Thumbs To Listen
(About Camembert)


Sometimes I do have a little too much time on my hands and start thinking about things like reincarnation. I wonder what a toilet might come back as in its next life. Or if a key ring is higher on the karmic ladder than, say, a paper clip.

I was in one of those moods at the supermarket recently. I observed how people would pick up a green pepper, look it over then throw it back. I saw it as rejection pure and simple. I then started wondering if the other peppers were happy when one of their brothers was put into a cart. Or if buying a pepper was tearing a family apart.

I know, I sometimes have too much time on my hands. But even if you don't have feelings for green peppers, you've got to feel for corn. Any day of the week you can see perfectly nice people grab an ear of corn, yank back the husk, look it over then throw it back. That's cold. Don't they realize that the defiled ear of corn is now branded forever as a reject. Who'd want a handled and rejected ear of corn? Nobody. That ear is toast. It will never see the light of grill. You might as well send it to the chowder factory.

But some people are even worse. Believe it or not, there are people who yank back the husk, jab their fingenail into a kernel then throw it back. Boy, that's really cold. I could practically hear the corn: "What is wrong with me? What is the heartless bastard looking for?!"

But I've got to admit, at this point I'm not thinking so much about the corn. I'm worried about where that person's fingernail has been.

Yes, I sometimes do have too much time on my hands, but I do have a long history of watching people's shopping habits. When I was a student living in France, I learned almost everything I knew by watching and imitating. I'd kind of hover nearby, watching and trying to hear what the shopper was saying. Then when I felt like I knew what was what, I'd try it myself.

The Story of Camembert Cheese was a unique problem. France has an amazing variety of cheeses. And most of them look truly awful, so it's easy to be a little nervous about buying cheese. So I'd watch. I'd watch women open a box of Camembert, press the cheese with their thumb, reject it, take another box, press it, reject it, and so on until a particular cheese spoke to their thumb.

I was having enough trouble understanding what their mouths were saying. Having to figure out what their thumbs were saying was almost enough to send me back to Denver.

At that point in my life cheese was Velveeta, and my mother never looked inside the box before buying it. Maybe she reached behind to get a box with neat corners, but that was the extent of her examination.

In 1974 I had never seen round cheese. I had also never seen cheese wrapped in wax paper and packed in a wooden box. And I certainly hadn't seen people thumbing cheese. All I could see was that there was a trick to getting a good cheese. And I didn't want to buy a cheese before I knew what the trick was. As a foreigner I was overly sensitive to my status as an ambassador for all Americans. I didn't want the cashier to think "Sacre bleu! Don't these Americans know anything?!?"

Realizing that I wasn't going to find a French/English Thumb Dictionary in my local Joseph Gilbert (the French Barnes and Noble), I decided to ask someone while they were in the act of thumbing. The woman I chose was remarkably nice about it and even coached me a bit. A couple other women overheard my question and joined in giving me pointers. It was a thumbing master class right there in my local Prisunic. Then they got to discussing the fine points between themselves. For all I know, they became lifelong friends and now go to each others' kids' weddings.

Anyway, even with my rudimentary French I found out that their thumbs were searching for ripe cheese. I'm sure these women were glad to help a poor American student, but that was definitely not good news to me. Up until then the concept of "ripe" had only applied to bananas and tennis shoes. But I did my part to redeem Americans everywhere. For my two years in Paris I pressed a lot of cheese and pretended to understand the concept. But my thumbs weren't talking to me.

Years later, when I again had a little too much time on my hands, I decided to get to the bottom of it. I called and talked with a few cheese makers.

I discovered that the issue of cheese ripeness is more or less obsolete today because most Brie and Camembert are now stabilized. That is to say, the cheeses are manufactured "ripe" and the downy white mold that covers the cheese is more or less cosmetic.

However, with traditional methods, the mold is actually responsible for ripening the cheese. As the mold feeds on the hard, rather chalky cheese, the cheese becomes soft and creamy. If you cut a traditionally-made Camembert in half you can see a chalky core if the cheese is slightly unripe. Sort of like a steak—put a steak on the grill for a minute and the center will be red and stone cold. Put the steak on for an hour and the center will be gray and totally done. In the case of Camembert, the mold is working on the cheese sort of like heat works on meat.

If you've got traditionally made cheese under your thumb and it's the right temperature, you really can sense how ripe a cheese is, though admittedly, it's a Princess and the Pea kind of thing. But as I said, most Camembert does not need to ripen, so we no longer have to be fluent in thumb.

And we don't have to hurt a Camembert's feelings anymore.


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John Ryan

Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.

This page created July 2000