Serious Cheese: What Happens When a Curd Nerd Becomes Lactose Intolerant?

Serious Cheese

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"My fate was sealed. I was lactose intolerant."

20090616-cryingcheese.jpgAbout a month ago I went with my family to get some Argentine-style gelato from Cones on Bleecker Street. A couple of hours later I had an unbelievably awful stomach attack, which I first attributed to food poisoning, but later reasoned that it might have been a bout of sudden-onset lactose intolerance (since no one else in my family had had food poisoning, and they ate the same things I did).

A week later, I ate a slice-and-a-half of pizza and had a similar (but not quite as bad) reaction. Oh no! My wife then reminded me that I had had the same symptoms a few weeks before the gelato event, from some Tibetan food that had a cottage-cheese based sauce. What? Lactose Intolerance? But I write the Serious Cheese column for Serious Eats! What was I going to do?

For the next couple of weeks after the gelato event, I avoided dairy almost entirely. I occasionally would dabble in dairy and invariably I would feel a little nauseous but largely okay. I thought maybe it wasn't lactose intolerance after all, maybe it was food poisoning all along and everything else was all just psychosomatic.

I really started to believe this, until I went out for some crazy good Ukranian food at Café Glechik in Brighton Beach. I had salad "Shopski" smothered in savory Bulgarian feta, sliced mushrooms baked in a sour cream and cheese sauce, and of course vareniki filled with dill and salted farmer cheese. You can say I went a little overboard on the dairy, but man was it good.

Until about two hours later. Same symptoms. I even took a prophylactic fast-acting lactaid pill with the meal, but it didn't help.

I wouldn't be the first serious eater to experience such a sudden onset of lactose intolerance, and indeed misery loves company. For the next few weeks, though, I'll be using this column to explore my relationship with lactose intolerance, and, of course, with cheese.

I'll be blogging about my adventures testing various dairy products to see whether or not I can tolerate them (don't worry, I'll spare you the gory details). My plan is to start with cheeses that have very little lactose—dry, aged ones like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Monterey Dry Jack. I'll go backwards from there, adding in cheeses with more and more moisture (moisture means lactose in cheese terms) and we'll see how things go. I might even try some goat cheese early on in the process, since it's generally lower in lactose than cow's milk cheese.

I'm hoping that documenting my process here will help other cheese lovers who are going through the same thing. And, of course, throughout the process I encourage other lactose intolerant serious eaters to share their experiences. We're all in this together!