“Shelf Life” at Tribeca 2024

    When Americans think of cheese it is usually cheese burgers or those horrible cellulose “cheesy poofs” beloved by Cartman in “South Park.” Orange, mild slices of Kraft American cheese. Cheese balls. Mac and cheese. (I am the rare person who isn’t infatuated with that beloved comfort food.) “In 2022, the average consumer in the United States ate about 41.8 pounds of cheese. Over the past ten years, U.S. per capita consumption of cheese has increased by over five pounds. (source)”

    But French people eat even more cheese each year yet they do not suffer from the same obesity epidemic people in the U.S. do. Probably because they eat mostly Brie and Camembert and scoff at American-made cheese.

    I love cheese but I have to eat it very sparingly. Especially at my age–there is a huge digestive cost for eating rich dairy products. And I can’t always afford to eat the very good blue and parmesan and stilton and other cheeses I love. I’m also one of those who believe in the science behind why humans shouldn’t consume dairy but really good cheese is (as BBQ is for some vegetarians) my weakness. So for me, the new documentary “Shelf Life” (which just screened at Tribeca) is major league food porn.

    Directed by Ian Cheney (who co-directed 2014’s “The Search for General Tso”), this gorgeously shot documentary portrays a variety of cheesemakers (or “cheesemongers”) all over the world. 

    Jim Stillwaggon, an American in France who once published a website called “Cheese, Sex, Death and Madness,” ponders the question, “Is cheese really food?” He thinks it is more of a sensory experience. Seeing a fly land on some cheese (a sight my American-taught germaphobia makes me gasp at!) he talks about how forensics specialists can tell how long a human corpse has been dead by the species of flies buzzing above it and wonders if it is the same with rotting cheese. He later tells the story of eating some cheese in the dark that was very good and then discovering that is was full of worms!

    68-year-old Mary Quicke of Devon, England explains why it is important to eat good cheese “nose to rind.” Mary says she is looking for a “mouth orgasm!” Alish Noris Jones, a monger who lives in Chicago talks about her selections for a cheese board served to her “besties” that day. Highly educated scientists and cheese tasters in Jasper Hill, Vermont demonstrate tapping cores of rinds to measure the progress of the mold. Microbiologist Rachel Dutton talks about the mites in the dust covering a rind: scrape off some to a surface and you’ll see it move over time! A cheese judge at an international competition explains the criteria for a gold medal cheese.

    One of the best segments involves Pakistani archaeologist Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology, who shows evidence that cheese was made by the workers who build the ancient pyramids. She, like many of those interviewed in the doc, compares the aging of cheese to the aging of humans. People, she points out, only lived to be about forty years old in the ancient world: “Alexander the Great died at age 33.” When does a person or a cheese peak?

    To paraphrase the great Michael Pollen’s advice about how to eat in general: “Cheese. Eat a little bit. Learn about it and savor the taste.” And there may be no better way to school yourself quickly than to see this great new documentary about the art, science and culture of rotting milk.

    Latest articles

    More Reviews