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Painfully slow food

(article, Curt Ellis)

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.  

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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.

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

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