Best Picture Cheeses: '12 Years a Slave'

 A slab of Tomme Crayeuse

A slab of Tomme Crayeuse

In 1997 Max Schmidhauser created the semi-soft goat's milk cheese Tomme Crayeuse as an answer to a top-selling French classic known as Tomme de Savoie. The latter is a perfectly fine cheese (I like to channel my inner cow and pretend I’m munching on grass while eating it), but Tomme Crayeuse’s flavors run deeper: from fresh earth to bright citrus to the gentle tang of goat’s milk. A visual stunner as well, it’s spotted with white and yellow molds against a marbled gray rind concealing an ivory paste. In its prime, the cheese is a lichen-covered rock after a rain shower, a painter’s splattered studio floor.

Tomme Crayeuse forces you to consider what cheese is: a festival of life. Turophile and microbiologist Rachel Dutton has said, “When you’re eating the rind of a cheese, you’re consuming more microbial cells than there are stars in the sky.” Crayeuse drives that home.

Cheese may be milk that never dies, a complex community fighting to survive, but in that fight there is death. Lactic acid bacteria chow down on a cheese’s interior, fungi colonize its rind, and B. linens metabolizes proteins into volatile compounds redolent of human sweat.

Steve McQueen’s powerhouse of a film 12 Years a Slave, of course, forces us to consider our American past, a past that Americans on the whole would prefer to forget. But, to the benefit of all, it rises above the tricks of a message movie and eschews emotional manipulation (cough…War Horse…cough) for raw performances and artful shots. The film’s visionary director fills the frame with beauty and horror, death and life. Just watch as human beings lie packed in the back of a wagon like pieces of a dissection puzzle. Watch Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey crafting decent but soulless creatures out of corn husks. Watch Solomon Northup hanging from a noose, his toes scraping the earth for hour upon endless hour.

It’s the surprise that draws us in, and then we start to see what we should have seen all along.