Mold-assisted food storage

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.

Spider Cheese For You & Me

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The following story stands alone and can be read without any knowledge of my prior works, but is a sequel to Beetle Siege.

Tolui dot-Temujin blew a red-fletched dart at the smallest yhaoginli in her herd. It promptly collapsed, all eight legs curling in to protect its melon-sized belly.

Jari, though the senior-most apprentice currently serving the Gardener's Temple, recoiled with atavistic disgust. He still didn't understand why his High Priestess had sent him on a pilgrimage west into the heathen highlands. Unfortunately, he did know she would want more details about what he'd just seen, no matter how vile.

"Is it dead?" he asked, hoping for an answer in the affirmative.

The skies, grey all morning, opened up. Rain flattened Jari's finely coiffed hair against his head, but Tolui, unpainted and unbound, barely seemed to notice. "Oh no, she's just broody. Won't like it much when we go poking around in her egghole, but we need the milk."

"For what?" Jari asked as green pigment smeared down his cheek.

Tolui gestured over her shoulder to the sling where her child sat bundled, munching happily on a vermillion-veined lump of something soft.

"I'm not eating that," Jari hissed over the steady drizzle.

Tolui rolled her ink-dotted eyes. "It lasts almost as long as aethergrain in storage, doesn't rot in the wet, and your priests won't need any magic to process it. If your choices are starving and eating cheese, Jari, you'll eat cheese."

He'd once served his Temple through three years of bitter siege. He knew she was right.

He still hated spending Temple coin on something so foul.


Afterword

Food preservation is very important. Cheese — like butter, sour cream, and yogurt — is a useful food primarily because it preserves a much more perishable one: milk. For the most part, milk is associated with mammals, and with good reason. In a lot of ways, lactation defines us as a class of animal. But not all mammal milk makes good cheese — donkey milk, for example, doesn't have enough casein to coagulate. And if we define "milk" loosely, as "a substance secreted by a parent in order to feed a young child," instead of requiring it contain a particular set of chemicals, or come from a particular type of gland, well, a lot of animals secrete food for their babies.

Spider Cheese For You and Me is the culmination of many threads of research, specifically the stuff that went into the cheese edition and stuff that went into the spidersilk edition. It was my research for lactating egglayers that provided the final spark, though.

As a bit of background, this story takes place about a decade after Beetle Siege, which is referenced directly in the story. It focuses on the yhaolingi, the large, vegetarian spiders that were introduced earlier this month in the Symbols of Waste edition. Symbols of Waste concerns itself with the textiles produced thanks to yhaolingi silks, while Spider Cheese For  You and Me focuses on food.

Some of the food, at least. Yhaolingi meat is edible, too — tastes a bit like othere kinds of arthropod cuisine. But for now, let's focus on cheese, because Jari's response to spider cheese is honestly how I feel about "stinky cheeses" — blue cheeses, and the infamous limburger, which I only know about because of a childhood spent watching Saturday Morning Cartoons. The thing about them is that even though I think they're gross, my husband loves them, and so do a lot of my friends.

I can get past the part where the blue bits are mold — or the fact that holes are usually caused by stuff like bits of dirt and grass. After all, French air molds are more like penicillin than the black air molds I'm used to, even if we generally inject cheese mold instead of letting it encrust the cheese naturally, like a rind. It's a bit like how San Francisco sourdough breads can't be replicated outside of California, not because of a secret technique but because the native yeasts from out west taste different. That doesn't bother me, any more than the fact that sausage is generally made from scraps like tongue and ear.

No, what gets me is the smell. I feel the same way about most beers, and pickled cabbage in most of its varieties. I find some vinegars intolerable and others enjoyable, and it doesn't always have a strong correlation to how often or how early I was exposed to them. My parents both ate a ton of sauerkraut while I was growing up, and to this day I loathe the scent of it.

Food preferences are in some ways cultural — which is to say learned — but they are influenced by genetics, too. It seems obviously true that lactose tolerance would be correlated with liking cheese, and not all ethnic groups have  high rates of lactose tolerance.

I wonder, then, if that's one reason Jari instinctively doesn't like spider cheese, even if it does preserve their milk through the winter.

More likely, he just thinks it's weird, the way my son immediately distrusted fig jam and red cabbage, even after he watched me happily eating both.

Not at the same time, though — that would be gross.  

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