P: There is a new sequencing technology that makes it possible to take any sample of biomass and figure out exactly what’s in it. Presumably, scientists will discover where L. sanfranciscensis comes from and how it gets around, but they haven’t yet. They have a saying in microbiology: “Everything is everywhere, but the environment selects.” So if you create the right conditions, there are so many bacteria everywhere, at all times—in the air, on your skin, everywhere—that they will find it and colonize the habitat. I went really deep down the rabbit hole of microbiology in food and in our bodies, because there are real links between the fermentation that takes place in a pickling jar or cheese, and the fermentation taking place in your body. They are not the same, but they have similarities and one affects the other.
So, for example, the orange bacteria in a washed rind cheese, Brevibacterium linens or B. linens, are very similar to the ones on your body and specifically in your armpits, that creates the human smell by, in effect, fermenting our sweat. There’s a reason why it appeals to us and why at the same time we find it disgusting.
R: It smells like sweat.
P: Old sweat. It’s on that edge, I talk in Cooked about the erotics of disgust, which is a real element in the appeal of strong cheeses, and in other fermented foods. It turns out that almost every culture has a food that other cultures regard as disgusting. You talk to an Asian about cheese and they are completely grossed out.
R: On the other hand, talk to an American about natto .
P: Or stinky tofu! In China, they think that is such a “clean” taste. No, to me it smells like garbage.
R: It’s like trying to understand sex. Who can understand it?
P: I know. But it’s fun to try.
R: But it’s completely...you feel like it’s your dinosaur self.
P: This stuff is. Smell is really deep.