Photo: Maximilian Stock Ltd./Getty Images
It’s easy to find disaster in the kitchen. A sliced finger; a mess of burnt garlic; a swarm of fruit flies bursting forth like dust from the sink’s strainer, from which you neglected to remove remnants of the garlic you burnt after slicing your finger. Yes, to err is human and to err in the kitchen is also human and more specific. But are the errors always our fault? Or could it be that sometimes the tools at our disposal are simply inadequate; there to make fools of us; there to torment and torture us while they laugh all the way to their eventual landfill hell?
Could it be that?
Like with those goddamn plastic goat cheese tubes, huh?????
Picture the goat-cheese tubes now, if you can: smooth, vacuum-sealed, see-through. Lump of goat cheese sitting there creamy white or covered in herbs. First imagine the tubes sitting calmly in your grocer’s cheese section, or in the self-serve refrigerator area of a cheesemonger’s shop where spreads and charcuterie also live. There they are, soft little bundles of hope.
Now imagine you’ve taken the goat-cheese tube home to use in a recipe. Oh, no. Here we go. The air-tight container is sliced open with a knife, out of desperation. (You thought this was the kind with the back that peels open, and maybe it is; you’re not sure because that feature sometimes does not work.) The punctured plastic is peeled back crudely to make room for a utensil. The goat cheese has fallen onto the table, the floor; it coats your fingers, and your utensil. When you’ve gotten what you need from the cheese, the package, scooped and squeezed, is smooshed against the remaining cheese to return to the fridge for later use, left in the cold open-air to, at best, form a hard outer layer at the package’s open end, and at worst to leak and mold into complete unusability. These tubes. These damn tubes!
“I’m not sure why soft, squishy goat cheese has to be shrink-wrapped — it just doesn’t make sense,” wrote Christine Gallary at Kitchn in a blog post about annoying food quirks. “Even when opened straight out of the refrigerator when it’s cold, it’s hard to cut through the packaging without getting the cheese all over your knife or scissors, and you can never seem to get every little bit off the plastic.” Indeed. Thank you, Christine, for the corroboration.
“Well, why don’t you just take greater care in opening and storing the tubes?” one might wonder. “Why don’t you just take greater care when opening and storing the tuuubes?” one might respond to that person in a whiny voice, mocking them. Perhaps before you look upon your fellow man and ask her to simply accept and work around inadequacies, you should look upon the tubes — the damn tubes — and wonder why they’re so annoying, and why they suck so much?
I presented that question (paraphrased) to Julie Garden-Robinson, nutrition and food safety specialist at North Dakota State University. “From the perspective of the food manufacturer, it helps to ensure safety and quality,” she said. Ah, yes. I thought she might say this. She suggests rewrapping the cheese in parchment or wax paper and putting it in an airtight container to store for later use. Fine, if I must. But why is the original packing so annoying?
“It does take another step for the consumer,” she said. “If I think about cheeses that don’t have an easily resealable container, sometimes they dry out in my refrigerator. So I really appreciate when manufacturers sell things that are easily resealable.” As do I.
Garden-Robinson also reasoned it’s possible that because goat cheese isn’t one of the most popular cheeses (I hope goat cheese isn’t reading this), there isn’t much pressure to retool the packaging — perhaps if goat cheese became a craze, manufacturers would explore other types. But for now, she said, “for consumers, if it’s a package that doesn’t easily reseal, it’s certainly easy to put it in something else.”
Oh — is it?????
Thinking it might be useful to go straight to the source, I reached out to a goat. Just kidding, I cannot communicate with goats. I reached out to Vermont Creamery, the goat-cheese manufacturer I most often see at the grocery store. F.M. Muñoz, the creamery’s director of marketing, kindly answered a few of my tube-related questions. “The packaging has never been the sexiest solution,” he admitted bravely, “but it offers many benefits for the Creamery during cheese-making and to the consumer at home.”
The packaging is strong and flexible, he maintained, and it keeps the delicate cheese fresh on its way to the consumer. Without the airtight material, Muñoz said the cheeses would likely spoil in a week or so. “This packaging is what enables the product to stay fresh and delicious long enough to leave the Creamery in Vermont and make it to places like New York City, where curd nerds can really enjoy the product in its intended form.”
Excuse me — curd nerds?????????
Vermont Creamery started using the dreaded tube 20 years ago, before which it used a looser plastic wrap. This was proven to be inadequate: too thin and too leaky. The plastic tube is actually a tremendous update, says Muñoz, whom I just met and who seems like he might already be trying to pull one over on me. “Oh, and this packaging is also easily opened,” he said, “with an easy-peel backing, it’s simple to open and remove the log of goat cheese without ruining its shape.”
Perhaps — for some!!!!!!!!
Muñoz at least admitted the resealing problem is an issue for all, saying, “We’re with you on this one!” Thank you. He suggests placing the log back into the original wrapper and securing it with a layer of cling wrap, or placing it into a small sealed container. Ugh. Fine, if I must.
“It’s a pain in the neck,” Judy Schad told me, of the plastic packaging. She’s the proprietor of Capriole, a beloved goat-cheese company out of Indiana, and she is correct. “I don’t love plastic, and I don’t love cheese in plastic, necessarily,” she said, but the situation is the situation, as it goes, and the situation is they need to ship this damn goat cheese.
“In France, somebody’s carrying it in every day, and it’s like fresh mozzarella or anything else. It’s meant to be eaten quickly. But if you can’t do that, and if your customers want your cheese to have a shelf life of god-knows-what and to be packaged safely, that’s the alternative. In tube containers or anything like that, there’s air, and the cheese tends to get moldy fairly quickly.” As much as she dislikes the plastic, she has yet to find a better way.
Capriole is a smaller manufacturer than a place like Vermont Creamery, and their smaller size does factor into the annoying-ness of the tubes. “We’re very tiny here, so we work with tabletop vacuum machines. And some people have that big rolling stock stuff so they can put those logs out, and then stamp something on top of them that you then peel back, which is, of course, easier. But we don’t have that kind of space or equipment. So it’s difficult.”
Something that also factors into the annoying-ness of the tubes, however, is, and I’m sorry to say it, the annoying-ness of: you. (And me.) Schad explains that after vacuum sealing the tubes, they get a quick dip in hot water to shrink-wrap them, making them smooth and beautiful. “If we didn’t shrink-wrap those packages on the logs they’d be easy to open. But would somebody go in and buy a wrinkled-up package with all the air pulled out of it, as opposed to a smooth one?” She proposes they would not.
This goes for non-tube shapes, as well. Schad tells me she prefers “rounds” — a circular formation rather than tubular — but Capriole customers seem to have a different preference. “What you’re trying to maintain is that shape everybody is used to. We’ve done rounds, for instance, which are much easier to open. But we kind of dropped those because customers want the tube kind.” They want to put a log on their cheese plate; they want to be able to cut it into medallions.
Customer demand, buying habits, and shelf life — these are the factors adding up to your goat-cheesed hands, your dirty scissors, that crumbly, yellowed outer edge.
“My favorite unfavorite-question,” Schad told me, is ‘How long will it keep?’ Well, don’t keep it. Eat it.”
Fine, if I must.