Sure, buying one of Jimi Hendrix’s guitars or collecting a lock of Charlotte Bronte’s hair might seem like the ultimate act of fandom. But would you sink your teeth into a piece of cheese made from their armpit bacteria? A new exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum asks just that, taking celebrity culture to the next level—literally. As part of an exhibit called Food: Bigger Than the Plate, the museum is showing off five types of cheese made from microbes collected from British celebrities.
So how does one turn the human microbiome into a chunk of cheddar? As a museum blog post explains, milk is transformed into curds by a unique starter culture or bacteria, which determines whether the cheese will ripen into a nice cheddar or a bit of gouda. It turns out that many of the bacteria used to make cheese are similar to bacteria encountered on human skin. That’s why sometimes the scent of stinky feet and stinky cheese overlap. Some of the bacteria on the human body also has the power to turn fresh milk into cheese, and that was used to make the "cheese selfies."
Scientist and cheesemakers at the London biolab Open Cell collected bacteria from celebrity armpits, ears, noses and bellybuttons. The bacteria was then grown in the lab until suitable strains could be selected for cheesemaking.
Suggs, the singer for the ska band Madness, best known in the U.S. for its 1982 hit “Our House,” chose to be immortalized in cheddar. Alex James, bassist for the band Blur chose Cheshire cheese and celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal went for comté. Great British Bakeoff runner-up and food writer Ruby Tandoh chose Stilton while Rapper Professor Green, who admitted he truly hates cheese, insisted his belly-button bacteria be turned into mozzarella, the only cheese he can almost tolerate.
The big question, of course, is why? Dear god, why? Tandoh, writing in The Guardian says for her the cheesemaking project, dubbed Selfmade, is a reaction to what she sees as over-reaction and restrictions on food cultures and traditions like raw milk cheese. “This kind of stubbornly strange, silly, unsterile food antic is right on cue,” she writes. “Raw-milk cheese is permitted in Scotland but is under threat, and it is against this backdrop that our cheese selves roll in: stinking, fermenting rebuttals to a food culture that values control over spontaneity, consistency over organic growth.”
According to the museum, the point of the project is to reframe microbes. Currently most people only look at microbes as potentially harmful pathogens, but without them our everyday existence would be impossible. “They interact with each other, performing different roles, helping to form us, feed us and protect us. It is now thought that the composition of our microbiome may even affect our mood, weight, intelligence and personality,” the blog states. “And as scientists develop new techniques for studying microbes, the popular assumption that they are only a source of harm or embarrassment (unwanted smells) is giving way to a much more complex understanding of the extraordinary things they do for us.”
This isn’t the first time that researchers have made human cheese from the nooks and crannies of people. In 2013, reports Rohini Chaki at Atlas Obscura, biologist Christina Agapakis and odor-loving artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas created 11 types of human cheese, including one from bacteria collected from the belly button of writer Michael Pollan. The current exhibit pays homage to that project. At the time, Agapakis told Aaron Souppouris at The Verge the idea was to “challenge the notion that ‘bad’ smells should be deodorized.”
“People have a mixture of repulsion and attraction to cheese,” she continued, “and this gives us a chance to have a really interesting conversation about bacteria and odors, and why they might gross people out.”
So what do the human cheeses actually taste like? We may never know. The celebrity cheese will not be sampled, but will be sequenced in the lab to determine whether the bacteria in them are safe for consumption. They will be displayed under glass domes at the museum, though we doubt there will be much need for security.