Curt Ellis is a filmmaker and four-wheel farmer based in Brooklyn, NY. He co-created the documentaries "King Corn" and "The Greening of Southie," and is a Food and Society Policy Fellow. He is the co-founder of Wicked Delicate.

Painfully slow food

Making the big cheese

By
October 25, 2007

Around this time last year, to celebrate the end of editing on “King Corn,” my girlfriend and I decided to take an afternoon off and cook up a batch of homemade cheddar cheese. Ha. It didn’t take long to realize that my year as a corn farmer had left me addicted to instant gratification. Ian, Aaron and I had grown 10,000 pounds of food with 2 hours of labor. This cheese took 14 hours to make, 5 days to dry, and 12 months to age — and yielded all of 2 pounds.

Our little experiment began simply enough, as we set out looking for a couple of gallons of raw milk: our first ingredient. We tried the phone book. Nothing listed in the area, except for the Curt Coolery Metro Milk Delivery Service, which, despite the promising name, turned out to be a cafeteria supplier. The grocery stores didn’t stock raw milk, either; too dangerous, health officials said. We tried the county extension service. Closed, for lack of farmers. Finally, we turned to the Internet, which took a bit of the Sturbridge Village glow off the whole affair.

The good news is, we did find a raw-milk dairy not far away. It turned out to be a hobby farm — an acre or so behind a suburban split-level on a cul-de-sac — but the miniature Jersey cows were outside, and grazing on real grass. Ian and I had visited a giant industrial dairy on our way home from meeting Earl Butz the year before, and I knew I didn’t want my milk to come from a place like that. The big dairies keep the cows confined in rank-smelling feedlots, raising them on cheap corn in place of grass. It gives the cows a kind of permanent indigestion, and the milk a less springy taste.

Not sweet corn.

So we signed a waiver indicating that our contraband raw milk was for kitty consumption only, stuffed a wadded $20 in our suburban farmer’s coffee can (a painful reminder of cheap food’s appeal), and loaded the glass-jarred hooch in the trunk. The milk was pale yellow and thick, with a heavy layer of cream clotted at the top.

Making the cheese took all the next day. With four ingredients — milk, starter, rennet, and salt — we had hoped it might be easier. I mean, a Twinkie has 28 ingredients, and those things are fast food! Instead, we hunched over the pot with a thermometer, raising and lowering the temperature on cue, cutting and draining the curds, stirring and stirring and stirring some more.

But each time we stirred, the curd in the pot grew smaller, and more whey was drained off. By the time we reached the last steps of the recipe, there was just a tiny lump of solid milk in the bottom of the giant saucepan.

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We broke the curd into pieces, loaded it into a cheesecloth-lined mold, and pressed it under 50 pounds of pressure. Five days later, we removed the weights and found a little round block of cheddar, about the size of a cereal bowl. We dipped the cheese in red wax, and enlisted my nieces and nephews in turning it every day for a year (our best move yet).

Last Saturday night, a full year later, with a full house of family around, we cracked open the wax to see what we’d made. Inside was a shamefully small, unbelievably delicious block of earthy, crumbly cheddar cheese. I can’t say that what we’d made could feed the world, but it sure tasted better than the Twinkies I’d grown the year before.

“King Corn” opens in theaters in Los Angeles on October 26, in San Francisco and Berkeley on November 2, and in Austin, Chicago, Portland, Omaha, and Corvallis, Oregon, on November 9. More dates at www.kingcorn.net.

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1. by Kim on Oct 25, 2007 at 3:20 PM PDT

So if I win the tickets will I be able to partake in that small block of cheese to snack on during the movie (or, insert bad popcorn pun here)? :) Cheese or not, my friend that lives in Berkeley and I (live in SF) are excited to see the movie in either of the two locations so please pick me! But don’t worry, even if I don’t win we will still make it out to see the movie.

2. by Nora on Oct 26, 2007 at 7:57 AM PDT

As a home cheese maker myself, I feel for you. Especially the part about getting raw milk- CA just passed new legislation that’ll make it next to impossible for me to indulge in my masochistic cheese-making obsession. Please send me and my husband to the movie in San Francisco- We could really use a night off!

3. by radish on Oct 26, 2007 at 8:47 AM PDT

This is such a great project. I would love to do that in my NY apartment :) the turning part might be tricky, especially if i’m traveling.. hmm... i think if anything, it makes you really appreciate the process of creating food - cheese is a terrific example of how something so small, took so much effort.

4. by Kerry Robb on Oct 26, 2007 at 2:16 PM PDT

Your cheese-making experience kind of sounds like making a pearl from an oyster, except with child labor involved. Awesome.

5. by tnrsmama on Oct 27, 2007 at 8:33 AM PDT

Your cheese making experiment is inspiring! I have been wanting to try making cheese, so far I have just had one very unsuccessful attempt at ricotta, which I don’t like that much anyway. Perhaps cheddar would be a better choice. If I win the tickets I will take my father to see the movie in Berkeley. He is my partner in cheese, we are both obsessed!

6. by anonymous on Oct 27, 2007 at 8:33 AM PDT

Wonderful

7. by Patience Hutchinson on Oct 28, 2007 at 8:31 AM PDT

My husband and are going to see the movie in San Francisco. We’d love free tickets.

8. by Christina on Oct 28, 2007 at 10:44 AM PDT

I would love to try cheese making. Unfortunately, raw milk may be banned from stores in California soon according to an article in the SF Chronicle on Friday. As poor grad students, my friend and I would love to get free tix for the movie in San Francisco.

9. by washington on Oct 28, 2007 at 11:08 PM PDT

I’d love to check out one of the SF screenings. Thanks.

10. by Rachelle on Oct 29, 2007 at 10:42 AM PDT

Berkeley, Please! I’ll be there regardless, but would love to see it for free as I am as broke as everyone else.

11. by Rolla on Oct 29, 2007 at 12:37 PM PDT

Enough corn! Unless, of course, you’re talking about white corn grown in Brentwood or the CA Delta region. Corn for syrup, for cars, for sweetness is something else. It’s so reflective of us as a culinary people in the USA. Sweet but not healthy to ourselves, to others, or to the world around us.

Bring on the craft cheese. Taste the land in the cheese, from the Swiss Alps to other cheese producing regions found in the world cheese can be connected to place. Taste most cheeses from the US and it us usually an attempt to taste like something from Europe. May the craft cheese makers open up new areas for our tongues. In the end, the chunk of cheese described in the story was small but craft cheese makers, like craft brewers might be our salvation as a culinary people. Save me. I would love to see the movie in Berkeley.

12. by La Niña on Oct 30, 2007 at 2:30 PM PDT

What about Seattle? Don’t we count? Please screen here...

13. by OpusOne on Oct 30, 2007 at 3:08 PM PDT

Seattle was recently added for the 16th at the Grand Illusion...

We have no tickets at this point, but, who knows what might happen in the next week or so?

14. by Galen Wood on Oct 31, 2007 at 10:01 PM PDT

I’d love to go see it in San Francisco

15. by OpusOne on Nov 1, 2007 at 12:19 PM PDT

The contest is closed, we will announce the winners later today!

16. by OpusOne on Nov 1, 2007 at 3:20 PM PDT

Congratulations to our two winners, Kiran for Berkeley show, and Jeff for the SF show! Enjoy and come back and tell Curt what you thought!

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