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The Logos of Cheese


Can you stand one more post from me gassing on about food and France? I can’t quite bring myself to get back into the Sturm und Drang of the daily news cycle because it feels so good to roll around in all the good memories of the vacation I just took, and to eat what’s left of the things I brought back. Like those two cheeses above, photographed before they disappeared down the goozlepipes of me and my guests last night. The one on the left is a raw-milk Camembert, which tastes like no Camembert you’ve ever had in this country, and the other is a fourme d’Ambert, a mild blue cheese from the Auvergne.

It is ridiculous how happy good cheese can make me. Marcel Pagnol said, “Such is the life of a man. Moments of joy, obliterated by unforgettable sadness. There’s no need to tell the children that.” Me, I think it’s the other way around. Such is the life of a man: unforgettable sadness, obliterated by moments of joy. Obliterated, at least, in the moment, and if you reach the proper philosophical perspective, perhaps even redeemed. The taste of good French cheese will in no way compensate for the sorrows of life, but to me, it provides a certain perspective. The theologian David Bentley Hart writes, “To see the world as it should be seen, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love.” Hart wrote that in “The Doors of the Sea,” [2] a serious work of theodicy, in which he reflects on how to reconcile the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God with events like the 2004 tsunami. Hart rejects easy theological answers, and trite optimism. Rather, he says, to confront reality as a Christian requires cultivating a kind of double vision:

Maximus the Confessor taught that it is only when one has learned to look upon the world with selfless charity that one sees the true inner essence — the logos — of any created thing, and sees how that thing shines with the light of the one divine Logos that gives it being. But what the Christian should see, then, is not simply one reality: neither the elaborate, benign, elegantly calibrated machine of the deists, smoothly and efficiently accomplishing whatever goods a beneficent God and the intractable potentialities of finitude can produce between them; nor a sacred or divine commerce between life and death; nor certainly “nature” in the modern, mechanistic acceptation of that world. Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world it its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in very part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but s glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautifully as in the beginning of days.

I’m not sure I fully understand what he’s getting at here, but I think I intuit it when I ponder how much I enjoy food, and how happy good food makes me. (France, of course, is an excellent place to open oneself to such thoughts). Some people wrongly make an idol of food, or of art, or of sport, or such things. This we must avoid, but we also must avoid the opposite thing, which is to denigrate the body and the material world by assuming that all pleasure derived from the enjoyment of creation is illicit, or at least suspect. When I taste a good cheese, for example, it makes me not only happy, but joyful. The happiness comes from this thought: “How delicious this is!” The joy comes from this thought: “How wonderful to live in a world where such happiness can come from such simple things!” For Christians who see the world through a sacramental lens, the divine expresses itself in part through matter. For those with eyes to see, the cheeses in the picture are radiant with the glory of God. For me, when I taste something extraordinarily good, my first impulse is to say a prayer of thanksgiving. I know not everyone is like this, but for me, moments like this are theophanies — a sudden disclosure of God’s presence in the world, and a reminder that however much boredom and pain we have to bear, God is still present with us, and will disclose Himself in His creation, if we are open to it, and grateful for it. The sadness may be unforgettable, but contra M. Pagnol, so are the moments of joy.

Ever see “Babette’s Feast” [3]? That. “An artist is never poor,” said the chef Babette. One who cultivates an artistic sensibility, especially within the sacramental Christian vision, is never hopeless, or so it seems to me.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "The Logos of Cheese"

#1 Comment By Rachel Dillard On April 21, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

Thank you for bumping the back of George Zimmerman’s head down a post!

I have seen Babettte’s feast and thought of it when you posted those photos of that lovely food you ate in Paris, especially the whatever it was of canard!

#2 Comment By Nate On April 21, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

Brilliant thoughts here. I myself am always reminded, as I pick up my weekly CSA share, how contrived atheism is. How can you be an atheist in front of this beautiful and delicious nature-stuff?

There’s no way that this argument will convince an atheist. So I don’t offer it as any sort of a priori proof. I think it of rather as a true confirmation bias. Like Aristotle said, you can’t convince someone who doesn’t see the world properly.

When you view the world a certain way, the right way, things come alive in ways that they don’t if you hold to a different worldview.

Or, as I tell my students, garlic destroys the fallacies of Gnosticism and Atheism in a single clove.

That said, I’ll have you know that I was going to skip lunch, but after seeing that picture, I’m not going to anymore. So thanks a lot.

#3 Comment By Sam M On April 21, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

Well stated. But doesn’t this then shed new light on differences in taste? Chees is not just cheese. A perfect meal is not just a perfect meal. Just like a perfect bit of jazz improv is more than soundwaves for certain aficionados. Others cannot understand, but we tend to appreciate their appreciation if we are feeling charitably disposed.

Of course, sometimes we are not charitably disposed, particularly when it comes to things produced in a corporate setting. Don Pablos?! Pshaw! You don’t understand food. Or, you don’t truly appreciate food! You are a consumerist, or you have been duped!

But I dunno. If the measure of the product is in the level of joy derived, aren’t all tastes actually equal? I know families who are just as joyful about going to Applebees as Rod and friends are about eating raw Camembert.

What to make of this?

#4 Comment By JonF On April 21, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

For me it’s a garden that brings me closer to God through His creation.Especially my own garden (from which I have just come in after spending time planting, weeding, pruning and feeding). And what could me more Scriptural? The Lord Himself planted a garden when He was done with the big stuff.

#5 Comment By Sean On April 21, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

Oh, that raw milk Camembert! Glad you got to enjoy it. One of the great tragedies of my life is that I’ve become gradually less tolerant of lactose, to the point where I can’t enjoy cheese any more. But I’d make an exception for raw milk Camembert!

Babette’s Feast is one of my all-time favorite films.

#6 Comment By Rod Dreher On April 21, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

Nate: When you view the world a certain way, the right way, things come alive in ways that they don’t if you hold to a different worldview.

Sam: If the measure of the product is in the level of joy derived, aren’t all tastes actually equal? I know families who are just as joyful about going to Applebees as Rod and friends are about eating raw Camembert.

Let me see if I can explain how these two thoughts are related.

I don’t believe the ultimate measure of any product is in the level of joy derived. For me, one of the most pleasurable tastes is the cold, crisp burn of a diet Coke when I’m washing down a burger fresh off the grill. Yet I wouldn’t claim that diet Coke is the same level of aesthetic achievement as, say, a Bordeaux, or a Belgian lambic beer. I think that to a person who is properly disposed, in a spiritual sense, gratitude is the right attitude toward any good thing. But not all good things are equally good, or good for the same reasons. It is always good to be able to worship God under a roof, and out of the rain, and for that, let us give thanks. But a churchatorium is not the same thing as a Gothic cathedral.

When I was learning how to drink wine, I preferred jammier, sweeter wines. I found very dry wine to be boring and difficult to drink. Now it’s completely the opposite. The more wine I drank, the more I came to understand how it’s constructed, and why the wines that are more highly prized by connoisseurs come to be so well regarded. In other words, my tastes became educated. I should say are becoming educated, because I’m always learning more about wine, and my tastes are continuing to change. I’ve long thought French wine, on the whole, was not as interesting as Italian and Spanish wine. That has changed over the past two or three years as I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties in French wine, which had eluded me before.

It seems to me that when something has its finest expression, there is a balance between formal attainment (“This is a well-constructed building/cheese/wine/piece of music/etc.”) and visceral pleasure. You can enjoy it equally with your mind and your body, to put it crudely. I was kind of getting at that above when I mentioned the difference between happiness and joy. Diet Coke almost always makes me happy, but drinking a good wine or beer (or tea, or coffee) makes me both happy and joyful. Does that make sense?

Anyway, I would never tell somebody that they should go eat at Le Bernardin and not Applebee’s if the former would only make them poorer, but not happier, because they either didn’t like the food, or wouldn’t be able to say what the big deal was. But that’s not the same thing as saying that Applebee’s is fundamentally no different from Le Bernardin. The two restaurants are trying to do different things. It’s hard for me to enjoy most classical music, but I recognize that what’s going on in classical music is a lot more complicated than in rock music, though I’d almost always prefer to go to a rock concert if given the choice. But then, I don’t care for music as much as I care for food.

I always like reading enthusiasts for something write about it. I don’t much like gin, for example, but if you give me an article about boutique ginmakers pioneering new ways to distill gin, I’ll read it with pleasure, because I love trying to understand how craftsmen do what they do. I love the care that goes into making something exceptional.

#7 Comment By Sam M On April 21, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

“But that’s not the same thing as saying that Applebee’s is fundamentally no different from Le Bernardin. The two restaurants are trying to do different things.”

This is what I am trying to get at. In sying that one is “better” than the other doesn’t take the different aims into account.

If you travel to Mario Batali’s restaurant, or some tucked away backwoods shed in Tuscany, you re clearly after some perfect expression of “Italian-ness.” And there is a lot to see in that. There is artistry and tradition and the perfection of place.

Will you get this at Olive Garden? No. But people aren’t seeking that there. In a sense, then, the Olive Garden is lesser. But not in every sense. The Olive Garden is not Batali’s, but it’s not a terrible 50s greasy spoon, either. It’s not McDonald’s. And it has done more than that Tuscan shack to bring SOME kind of appreciation for ethnic cuisine to “the people.” The logistical feat required to spread this, consistently, across an entire continent, at a price that an average family can afford, is an economic anc cultural achievement of epic proportions. To me, it’s an achievement that matches just about anything that any particular cheesemaker might claim. in fact, I might even call it miraculous.

In short, I am not sure why aesthetic complexity should take precedent over other sorts of complexity.

I might also add that, in some instances, it’s not the complexity that’s valued at all. The oysters, for instance, required no particular expertise or artisanry. They weren’t even cooked. Any Britney Spears fan with a shovel and a shucking knife could achieve it.

#8 Comment By Rod Dreher On April 21, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

I might also add that, in some instances, it’s not the complexity that’s valued at all. The oysters, for instance, required no particular expertise or artisanry. They weren’t even cooked. Any Britney Spears fan with a shovel and a shucking knife could achieve it.

Yes, sometimes the greatest beauty is the simplest. Possibly the most delicious thing I cook is a simple brisket. The manner of cooking is what makes it so good. That’s one thing I love about the Italian approach to cooking, versus the French: Italian cooking is about simple preparation, with very fresh ingredients. It’s a wonder.

#9 Comment By Sam M On April 21, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

“Yes, sometimes the greatest beauty is the simplest.”

But this, then, would seem to add some complexity to the notion that things like “rock music” and “classical music” are at different levels because of complexity or virtuosity or some such. The Ramones were not Bach. But they did not intend to be Bach.

Perhaps the reason people dislike things like Olive garden so much is because the marketing does seem to indicate that there is some ambition to be the tiny Tuscan place, or some such? Inauthenticity is fine, unless there is a claim made to authenticity?

#10 Comment By Roland de Chanson On April 21, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

Food for thought or for logos, as one might say, in this post.

Logos in Greek can mean, I suppose, almost anything, rather like ratio in Latin, which is indeed one Latin translation of logos. If you write of the logos of cheese, you are presenting a recipe for the making of the selfsame milk curds. Beyond that, the Greeks would have a logos of amusement on the subject.

It is hard to argue with Hart’s logos on the logos of what you have called the logos of cheese. I find it difficult to follow the logos of his logos but his foray into the Logos and your implication that there is a logos (other than that of the teleological of sustenance or pleasure, for which I think it a logos-derived inference that you are at least a closet Epicurean and in such measure, an essential pagan (for which I congratulate you)), but, if you will pardon the anacolouthon, cheese is not a Logos created substance. Cheese, as wine (though the Logos did not change milk into cheese, as he did water into wine) is a man-made substance (man is the measure of all things) and is thus a logos that is not of the Logos but merely reproduced by Him ex post facto.

The logos of my logos is that there is no logos when it comes to stuff like this. But the greater logos here is this: how much did you pay for the Camembert and the Auvergne? I will ask a NY friend to bring me some on his next excursion into the provinces.

A Greek dictionary will suffice to render the plethora of logos references into comprehensible English, a language so poverty stricken, that it needs many words to express the unified essence of all things. Sts. Plotinus and Hypatia, pray for us.

#11 Comment By Sherry On April 21, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

Rod, feel free to continue “gassing on about food and France.” I certainly enjoy reading (and consuming) it.

#12 Comment By Martin Snigg On April 22, 2012 @ 6:10 am

GKC ‘Cheese’ [4]

“There was a noble Wensleydale cheese in Yorkshire, a Cheshire cheese in Cheshire, and so on. Now, it is just here that true poetic civilization differs from that paltry and mechanical civilization that holds us all in bondage. Bad customs are universal and rigid, like modern militarism. Good customs are universal and varied, like native chivalry and self-defence. Both the good and the bad civilization cover us as with a canopy, and protect us from all that is outside. But a good civilization spreads over us freely like a tree, varying and yielding because it is alive. A bad civilization stands up and sticks out above us like an umbrella – artificial, mathematical in shape; not merely universal, but uniform. So it is with the contrast between the substances that vary and the substances that are the same wherever they penetrate. By a wise doom of heaven men were commanded to eat cheese, but not the same cheese. Being really universal it varies from valley to valley.”

And is Rod, when he speaks of the formal and visceral, onto Plato and CS Lewis’ understanding of poetry/myth?

“Human intellect is incurably abstract. Pure mathematics is the type of successful thought. Yet the only realities we experience are concrete–this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain, or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples; we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify. This is our dilemma–either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste–or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it. [ . . . ] Of this tragic dilemma myth is the partial solution. In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction. (“Myth Became Fact” 65-66)”

#13 Comment By Martin Snigg On April 22, 2012 @ 6:21 am

P.s. Fermented foods are transfigured. The yeasts and bacteria used to make them produce flavour enhancers like guanylates and glutamates, and amphetamine analogue stimulants like tyramine.

Poetical 🙂

#14 Comment By Martin Snigg On April 22, 2012 @ 6:21 am

+invariably good for natural flora too.

#15 Comment By Sands On April 22, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

I’m not a big fan of cheese, so it would take a lot more than a wheel of that stuff to convert me. Great BBQ, microbrews, and fields of bluebonnets on Texas back roads have close to converting me though.

#16 Comment By Frederica Mathewes-Green On April 22, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

Rod, with your supernose, you are able to perceive thngs that most of the rest of us can only read about in wonder. You’re the comestibles mystic. The averagely-nosed person (or sub-nosed, like me, after all that sinus trouble) savors at second-hand your joy, believing completely that something true is going on, something wonderful, and believing that we will never be ourselves able to exprience it. A traveler to a far country, with spellbinding tales to tell.

#17 Comment By Dave D. On April 22, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

I think Sam has a good point, and I’d say ultimately the thankfulness has to be divorced from levels of knowledge or complexity innate to the object.

A person can feel joy in the rain simply because of the sense impressions of it, or they can because of such as well as superior knowledge of how weather works, and how complex it is. But the moment you start appreciating more or less based on that knowledge, you risk making a sacrament of aesthetic or intellectual experience. This can even work with simplicity or roughness: somehow children playing baseball is purer than them playing World of Warcraft.

I think however that this is only limited to “the divine expresses itself in part through matter” as Rod says. In that all created things reflect God’s glory. I wouldn’t argue that this means everything is as good of an experience as another, just that you cannot argue in the end that a Shakespeare sonnet expresses the divine more than a child’s song. That expression is so variegated and unique that I find that foolish. It however is a very present temptation, even in reverse. When how bad something is, or how raw makes it more spiritually authentic.

#18 Comment By Sam M On April 22, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

Dave D. makes good points.

I would only add that if complexity or “difficulty” is the key to discerning craftsmanship, this would lead us to some awkward artistic conclusions. For instance, I think it’s clear that in recent years, some of the world’s great guitar virtuosos are guys like Joe Satriani or that Yngwie Malmsteem guy. I don’t know any of the songs they have written or perform. I just happen to know a few guitar players who talk about these guys and their technical proficiency.

Yet… does the complexity of their compositions or the near impossibility of playing them make them “better” than a great garage band? Can anything they do approach the perfection of Neil Young’s one-note solo in Cinnamon Girl?

That is, why CAN’T rock music be “better” than classical? Other than we think we are supposed to say such things? Go on You Tube and look up a clip of an early Minor Threat show. Seems to me that’s what art is supposed to do.

#19 Comment By Skrifara On April 23, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

What we need here is a way to distinguish “logos,” the theological term, at a glance from the plural of “logo.”

How many people thought this post was going to be about the Laughing Cow (or, for those still in trasition from travel, “la vache qui rit”)?

#20 Comment By S Johnson On November 15, 2012 @ 11:11 am

What would Cheeses do?