The realization didn’t strike overnight. It took many months. But the daily evidence of one thing becoming another, enzymes turning liquid to solid, milk into curd into cheese, showed me possible futures.
I spent four years immersed in cheddaring, my life revolving around transformation. And it was there on the production floor, with salt-crusted arms, whey-splattered glasses, and thousands of pounds of curd ready to take shape before me, that I realized I was trans.
I developed a taste for cheese production as a camper at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, New York. After my sophomore year of college, I returned to be a creamery apprentice and spent a summer bottling raw milk and scrubbing off blue mold on aging wheels in the cave. The bits of cheesemaking I did were intoxicating, but I mainly saw the before and after, without much insight into the transformation in between.
The day the cheesemaker let me make ricotta cemented my obsession. The milk I’d watched fill endless bottles took on new life: soft white curds blossoming in an expanse of golden whey. Before the tubs of fresh cheese were cool, I filled a jug with raw milk to try again on my own. In the farm kitchen, I was awestruck at the coagulation, at the way I had harnessed this power of transfiguration.
When my mom mentioned passing a cheese producer 10 minutes from our apartment back home in New York City, I knew where I’d work after graduation. I dropped off my résumé and returned repeatedly until they hired me.
I started at Beecher’s in July 2017. All the cheesemakers were men. I was in a liminal gender space, unsettled and unsure. I existed by default; my hair unchanged from childhood, living in running clothes, unable to convince myself to wear anything else. An office job would have required daily decisions around dress, decisions I was incapable of making.
The clothes I wore to Beecher’s were dictated by convenience. I had to change in and out of uniform a dozen times a day, so sweatpants were the efficient option. My undershirt was whey-saturated and stinking by the end of each shift, so free T-shirts were the logical choice. I had the ready-made excuse of food safety when I cut my hair—a fade fit better under a hairnet. And what did it matter what I wore anyway since customers only saw me in uniform? The white shirt, navy pants, and red boots made all us cheesemakers the same. And yet my gender remained present.
I spent more than half a year proving myself. A 10-hour shift making cheddar requires lifting 40- to 60-pound blocks hundreds of times. I felt doubted at every step as coworkers took 2,000-pound carts out of my hands, told me to mop the cooler while they finished loading pallets, or brought up the previous female hire who hadn’t lasted. I ran ragged demonstrating my stamina and strength, did any task left undone, accepted all offers of overtime, and took comfort in every moment I was treated like one of the guys.
Each shift, I used my lunch money to buy cheese from the case, cultivating an encyclopedic knowledge of what they had on offer. I asked mongers when the Consider Bardwell would be restocked, compared the merits of Bayley Hazen to Dunbarton Blue, and discussed the best temperature for the gooey Bonne Bouche. I wanted to be the most knowledgeable, the most capable, the best cheesemaker I could be. Maybe then others would forget about my gender. When they referred to me as “my guy” or “flee” or “bro,” I felt assimilated.
My body changed as the milk did, hardened and sharpened with the hours of labor. I could see my masculinity under the surface like the curd before it’s cut. I couldn’t understand how nobody noticed.
But who can see cheese in a glass of milk?
Gil Verrelli was already an avid fermenter when we met during our freshman year of college. They worked on a queer dairy farm, bartended at a brewery, studied microbiology, and made pickles for fun. While bartending, they shifted to more masculine fashion to dissuade unwanted advances and to fit into the beer-bro culture. “I got more respect,” they said. “Then I realized I liked dressing that way.”
The male camaraderie they found running our college’s beer club helped them settle into masculinity. The physical labor of washing kegs honed their body to match.
The bro culture was a good gateway, but, “that’s not my kind of masculinity,” Gil said. “I’m a very femme, faerie gay boy.” They loved the nurturing side of beer, the cultivation and management of yeast, the life-giving nature of brewing.
I didn’t see trans fermenters as a pattern until June Henry Hyde, a trans 18-year-old from Kansas, told me her plans to start a pickling business with her nonbinary partner. She showed me the self-administered tattoos on her forearm: a pickled pepper jar next to a star-topped wand.
“I consider fermentation to be a form of magic,” she told me. For her, transition is magic as well. It takes magic to manifest desired realities. “But there’s this other layer of people who are really averse to fermented foods, like ‘It’s different, it’s undergone this transformation that’s made it less desirable,’” she added. The otherworldly scoby in kombucha, the stinging fragrance of kimchi, the very concept of eating mold makes some resistant to giving fermented foods a chance. “It’s seen as an acquired taste in some cases, which resonates with me a lot as a trans person.”
Today I can’t not see the pattern. Whether making cheese or beer or pickles, there’s symbolic liberation in the process of transformation. As the writer Julian K. Jarboe once tweeted, “God blessed me by making me transsexual for the same reason he made wheat but not bread and fruit but not wine: because he wants humanity to share in the act of creation.”
Fermentation is hope for trans folks. If people can conceptualize cucumbers becoming pickles, then they can grasp a trans person’s name change. If the possibility of Camembert, Parmesan, and ricotta exist within milk, then think of all the possible genders to choose from! After all, what is rennet if not the hormone replacement therapy of dairy?
Transition takes patience, like waiting on life to develop in the mash. It’s a process of incremental steps with the promise of an unpredictable yet precious result.
I’m not a cheesemaker anymore. I’m a journalist. And these days I feel settled in my gender, no more desperation for change. I take conversations with people living vibrant lives, sprinkle in research and a few expert voices, and shape them into narratives that I hope plant fresh ideas in the minds of strangers. This form of creation is more amorphous. There’s no tangible product I can hold in my hand or feed to my friends.
I’ve accepted my gender as amorphous as well. I just am who I am, without much thought to the accepted binary. But sometimes the old urge resurfaces, and that’s when I make ricotta. Here in my tiny kitchen in Kip’s Bay, I fill a big white-enameled stockpot I inherited from my Grandma Martha with milk from the Union Square Greenmarket. I relish the moment of tipping the lemon juice into the simmering milk, the golden explosion of whey separation, the curds taking shape like it’s the only natural thing to do.
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Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit