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The "selfie" cheeses are on display at the Science Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin. (Courtesy of Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin)

An Omnivore's Dilemma: Would You Eat Michael Pollan Microbe Cheese?

by Michaeleen Doucleff
Nov 25, 2013

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The cheesemakers collected swabs from volunteers, then let the bacteria and yeast multiply in Petri dishes in the lab before putting them into fresh milk. Microbiologist Christina Agapakis (left) and artist Sissel Tolaas show off the cheese they made with bacteria from human skin. The project was part of Agapakis' graduate thesis at Harvard University. Microbiologist Christina Agapakis (left) and artist Sissel Tolass show off the cheese they made with bacteria from human skin. The project was part of Agapakis' graduate thesis at Harvard Medical School. Self made: This cream cheese contains bacteria collected from inside scientist Christina Agapakis' mouth. An omnivore's dilemma, indeed: Would you eat this soft cheese made with bacteria from writer Michael Pollan's belly button?

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Making your own cheese and yogurt is all the rage these days. (Our friends at Kitchen Window broke down the process in a recent post, if you're curious.)

Well, it looks like a scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles has taken the whole DIY fermentation idea to an entirely new level.

Microbiologist Christina Agapakis teamed up with the artist Sissel Tolaas to create cheese using the microbes that grow on their skin. They also made selfie fromage for food writer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and other titles, and the artist Olafur Eliasson.

The curious curds currently live at the Science Gallery, at Trinity College in Dublin, where visitors are encouraged to sniff — but, thankfully, not eat — the displays.

"People were really nervous and uncomfortable, and kind of making these grossed out faces," Agapakis says about visitors to her exhibit. "Then they smell the cheese, and they'll realize that it just smells like a normal cheese."

In general, cheese is made by taking milk and spoiling it with bacteria called Lactobacillus. The bugs turn the milk sugars into acid, which in turn makes the milk clump up or curdle. The chunks are separated from the liquid and then aged with specific yeast to create a Camembert, Parmesan or an American cheddar.

Lactobacillus and yeast are all around us. They hang out on plants, inside animals' guts and on our skin. So Agapakis and Tolaas thought, why not collect some these personal microcritters and use them to curdle milk?

The microbiologist used swabs from her mouth and skin, as well as from Pollan's belly button, Eliasson's tears and another scientist's feet. She grew the bacteria and yeast in Petri dishes in the lab and then, once she had enough, she added them to fresh milk. The result was a cheese designed to make you rethink the sometimes fine line between stinky and appetizing.

The bacteria and yeast that inhabit our feet or skin aren't too different from those that grow in cheese, Agapakis tells The Salt. "So a lot of the smells on cheese are very similar to body odors."

Agapakis says she understands why the project might make some people uncomfortable — even grossed out. But she insists that's not the point. Instead, she and Tolaas want to challenge us to think more about our emotional response to odors and how the context can influence our impressions.

"The idea was to recognize, how do we get grossed out? Then to think about it and move beyond that initial idea of disgust," Agapakis says. "Why are we more uncomfortable with bacteria on the body than we are with bacteria in cheese?"

Besides, Agapakis and Tolaas aren't the first to make this sort of selfie cuisine. Last year, Rogue Brewing Company in Oregon made a beer using yeast from brewmaster John Maier's beard.

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