When Scott Rankin smells stinky cheeses — the kind so potent that the French refer to them as “the feet of God” — he doesn't just use his nose.
He employs decades of education and academic research. He pulls the cheese apart and balls it up like Play-Doh to check for consistency.
“They are kind of ‘wow' moments for me,” said Rankin, 43, a cheese “scholar-in-residence” at the American Cheese Society's 25th annual conference, held on a recent weekend at the Hilton Chicago on South Michigan Avenue.
He continues: “Some of these flavors you never associate with milk, but how you get them (stinky) is magic. It reflects a lot of care and work and attention. … It's a work of art, and that's to be celebrated.”
Even if you gag a little, apparently.
The conference is a dairy Super Bowl of a sort, with hundreds of artisans and high-quality products. It provides a platform for cheesemongers, retailers and aficionados to network, talk about their passions and compete. Cheeses are judged and evaluated (Rankin's job), and attendees hold sessions on “How to Sell Cheese to Chefs” and more esoteric subjects such as “Demystifying Rennet and Coagulants.”
In spite of such a rarefied interest, Rankin isn't an evangelist of the curd, a champion of cheese. No, he's a food scientist, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He studies not only the chemistry of cheese, but also the intricacies of production (10 gallons of milk equals 1 pound of cheese) and the evolution of craft. He experiences dairy's golden cousin like few others.
“I look at cheese as a flavor reactor,” he says. “For some cheeses, I think, ‘Wow, you got milk to do this?' It's that kind of intrigue that engages me.”
When Rankin speaks about his work, sports metaphors abound. He likens the University of Wisconsin's premiere food science program, with apologies to the Green Bay Packers, as an academic “dynasty, like the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s.”
He has been interested in food — specifically cheese and other dairy — from an early age. Rankin's dad died when he was young, and his mother went back to work, so he ended up cooking a lot.
He also liked chemistry.
“So the marriage of the two created a food science major,” he said.
When it came down to choosing his field of study, it was easy. “It's sort of that desert island question: ‘If you could choose one food to live off of on a desert island ...'”
He did not choose cherry-flavored Pez.
Now, at conferences such as these, he assesses cheese for taste, texture and chemical makeup. But he's no snob. “When I'm watching the Packers game at home, I have a bag of Cheetos close by.”
Still, some of his job as a “scholar-in-residence” means telling cheesemakers how to improve their products. And no one likes being told their baby, which they've nursed and cared for and shipped to Chicago, is ugly. Or inappropriately stinky.
“It's a pretty straightforward process,” Rankin says. “Someone might say, ‘I understand what you're saying, but I don't agree.' But that doesn't happen often.”
Strangely, there's little animosity at the conference.
“From my perspective, it's really like helping your child to best behave,” said Flavio DeCastilhos, owner of Tumalo Farms, a cheese producer in Oregon. “It's no different than a coach coaching a kid to become a better soccer player … so I take it as, ‘Here is how your child can improve.' ”
Cheese importer Daphne Zepos, of New York state's Essex St. Cheese Co., says: “I think acrimony comes with the frustration of not knowing what to do next. But really, you have an ethical responsibility to fairly assess the cheese.”
Rankin's job doesn't limit him to the palate, to taste-testing and crumbling cheese between his fingers (which he does, on the convention floor, to determine texture and a cheese's ability to shred.).
No, there are bigger questions at hand.
“We still don't know why cheddar smells the way it does,” Rankin says. “There's no chemical reason, really, for cheddar's smell.”
He jokes that we can split the atom, “but we still don't have the technology to understand this.”
Then, without of hint of cheesiness, he adds: “It's fascinating. I could spend two lifetimes doing this.”