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The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved

(article, Sandor Ellix Katz)

h3. From the chapter "Slow Food for Cultural Survival"

Many traditional foods and methods of food production have been prohibited by laws imposed in the name of hygiene. My current favorite example of an outlawed food is the Italian cheese called casu marzu, a traditional product of the island of Sardinia. 

Casu marzu is made from pecorino, an Italian sheep's-milk cheese, that is left out in the sun. Flies land on the cheese and lay eggs, which hatch into maggots that digest the hard, mild pecorino into casu marzu, "a viscous, pungent goo that burns the tongue," according to the Wall Street Journal.

Saveur also featured a vivid account of tasting casu marzu: "We happened to be in a light-filled room as we prepared to taste it, and the maggots started jumping around like crazy and landing everywhere, including on us."

h1. About the book and author

Sandor Ellix Katz is an expert in traditional, DIY foods; his first book, Wild Fermentation, explored the many fermented foods we take for granted, including beer, cheese, and bread.

With his second book, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, Katz hit the road to interview people around the globe who were fighting to keep traditional, unusual, and even illegal ways of making foods alive. 

In this excerpt, he questions our assumptions about purity and contamination in food.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Chelsea Green (2006).

As you eat casu marzu, you must cover your eyes with a hand to protect them from jumping maggots.

I've told many fermentation-enthused audiences about this sensational cheese, and it never fails to get people to cringe in horror. In my fermentation practice I've periodically encountered maggots in foods I've been aging. Anywhere flies can land and lay eggs, maggots will develop. It's happened to me most often on cheeses I've tried to age in summer.

People worry about the bacteria that flies could potentially spread, but the acids in an aging cheese make it inhospitable to pathogenic bacteria. Emboldened by reading about casu marzu, I've tasted a few accidentally maggoty cheeses. The cheese digested by the maggots is incredibly creamy and strong. 

In my observation, the maggots themselves migrate from the creamy area to fresh cheese, so I've ended up with mostly viscous, gooey, pungent maggot-digested cheese and not much of the squirmy maggots themselves. No maggots jumping. And whatever maggots are there blend right in.

Really, people in this world eat all sorts of things, even insects, creepy-crawly things, and molds. People eat fish that has been buried for months until it decomposes into a cheesy paste; they eat years-old eggs and decades-old hams. 

My friend Roman, when he was a little kid, used to eat worms, centipedes, and grasshoppers, without ill effect. The more grossed-out people were, the more encouraged he felt.

Notions of what is appropriate to eat are largely subjective and culturally determined. There is no objective universal boundary between food fit to eat and food that is inappropriate or "spoiled."

[%image promo-image float=right width=350 caption="Aged pecorino for sale." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/anzeletti"]

People in Sardinia have been eating casu marzu for hundreds of years, apparently without ill effect. Casu marzu sells for twice the price of the maggot-free pecorino. Except that you can't buy it any more — at least not legally.

"Selling it or serving it can be punished with a hefty fine," according to the Wall Street Journal. Evidently the European Union bureaucrats in Brussels cringed at the thought of maggoty cheese, so they declared it illegal, not in compliance with E.U. hygienic standards. The cultural homogenization machine grinds on, saving us from corruption by eccentric cultural variations.

Of course, the tradition of casu marzu continues. People do not simply say, "OK, we will end our inherited tradition because you say so." People resist any new order imposed upon their culture. And so casu marzu continues to be made and eaten, though now not sold, at least not openly. The tradition now holds a different place in the culture, as a symbol of resistance against an ever-more-distant, out-of-touch centralized authority.

Elsewhere on Culinate: Read an interview with Katz.

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