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Investigation: Is the Moon Made of Cheese?

The question of whether Earth's satellite is made of curdled milk has been around for a long, long time


n the February 1915 edition of The Bank Man, a journal published by the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Bank Clerks, one G. G. Florine illustrates the typical contours of a formal debate. To make his point, he calls on an example argument — and not just any argument, as it happens, but a categorically idle and spurious one, undertaken when "there were no more worlds to discuss": the question of whether or not the moon is made of cheese. Here's how Florine renders such "verbal combat":

Question: Resolved—That the moon is made of cheese.

Affirmative: Why isn't the moon made of cheese? It is round like a cheese. It is yellow like a cheese. Therefore, the moon is a cheese.

Negative: You have heard my worthy opponent say that the moon is made of cheese because it is round and yellow. Now, gentlemen, I submit that roundness and yellowness do not constitute the distinctive qualities by which a cheese is distinguished from that which is not a cheese. For example, my noble antagonist's head is round, and on some mornings his face has been tinged with yellow when economic conditions have imbued him with insomnia; but no one would seriously entertain the idea that my esteemed adversary in this argument is a cheese, although I admit that he comes nearer to being one that the moon does.

While the moon's largely silicate mineral composition wouldn't be confirmed for another half-century or so, by 1915 the cheese theory could already be easily dismissed as balderdash. It is a preposterous conceit by design, but one so ingrained in Western thought that it typically serves — then and now — as a prime example of unscientific thought.

It's unlikely that many people of sound academic mind ever seriously bought into the premise of a dairy satellite. It's easy to forget, here in the jaded 21st century, that premodern generations could reach beyond fanciful folklore for explanations of the observable universe. In this case, the popular myth was never a story believed so much as one that was indulged — and even that much was done at one's peril.

It's easy to forget that pre­modern gener­ations could reach beyond fanci­ful folk­lore for expla­nations of the observ­able universe

Consider, for example, the appearance of moon cheese in English Renaissance poet and playwright John Heywood's sixteenth century collection of proverbs. He notes that the collected sayings — including present-day standbys like "look before you leap," "many hands make light work," and "I know on which side my bread is buttered" — far predated his own life, many with mysterious roots in the Middle Ages. "Our common plaine pithie Proverbs olde," he calls them. The couplet that concerns us: Ye set circumquaques to make me beleue / Or thinke, that the moone is made of gréene chéese.

You'd be hard-pressed to figure a fancier way of saying "cut the bullshit"; the comparatively gritty idiomatic descendant might be "I've got a bridge to sell you." But what Heywood and others of his era saw as the patent absurdity of a curdled lunar landscape (a presumably related family of fables from that time describes animals who mistake the moon's reflection on water for a floating piece of food, often cheese) is perhaps the exact thing that allows the fantasy to endure. At the very least, that sort of capricious speculation holds an enduring appeal for the naïve: The news website Live Science points to a 1902 American Journal of Psychology survey of young children who widely subscribed to this cherished quack astronomy, though a few claimed the moon was "rags, God, yellow paper," or "dead people who join hands in a circle of light."

It's no accident that we attach our strangest notions to the moon, for so long an impenetrable and unreachable beacon. It's a remote, fluctuating body that lends itself to credulity and fairy tales as readily as to skepticism; it's nature's familiar and constant paradox.

In 1835, some three hundred years after Heywood published his sarcastic proverb, New York newspaper The Sun ran a series of wholly fictional articles that detailed alleged discoveries of the moon's alien ecosystems and the bat-winged humanoids that dwelled there, sensational visions owed to a new, "immense," and likewise fabricated telescope — all misleadingly attributed to the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel by author "Dr. Andrew Grant," who had never existed. With the advent of modern science, our capacity for invention only increased. And despite The Sun's dodgy editorial ethics, the "Great Moon Hoax" enhanced the papers circulation (though by what amount remains a matter of dispute).

People always seem willing to believe, or disbelieve, what they're told about the moon

People always seem willing to believe, or disbelieve, what they're told about the moon. Take today's moon landing deniers, a vast array of paranoiacs who contend that, for one reason or another, NASA's manned missions to our only natural satellite were faked. The conspiracies become remarkably convoluted: French author Philippe Lheureux has written about his belief that the U.S. did put men on the moon, but maintains that the government circulated bogus images of the landing to prevent other nations from obtaining valuable engineering intelligence.

Compared to this kind of wild conjecture, a cheese moon suddenly seems rather quaint, which is no doubt why it remains a fixture in children's entertainment. Like a baby-delivering stork or the Tooth Fairy, it simplifies or stabilizes reality for those who can't yet quite grasp its finer points. And it is there, in the bedtime stories and cartoons, that we begin to investigate a consequent question about the moon as a refined dairy product: If we accept that the moon is made of cheese, the next thing to wonder is precisely what kind of cheese that may be.

The Oscar-nominated stop-action short A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit has fun with this imponderable, its snacky human protagonist tasting a slice of the lunar ground and carefully gauging its taste. "Wensleydale?" he asks. "Stilton," he guesses. His sharp-nosed canine companion disagrees with both assessments, and, indeed, it's difficult to imagine such a lunar quantity of cheese produced in either of the old-world English locales Wallace suggests. "It's like no cheese I've ever tasted," he at last concludes, at the moment where an American character might have broadly quipped, "It's out of this world!"

If we accept that the moon is made of cheese, the next thing to wonder is precisely what kind of cheese that may be

A Yahoo! Answers thread on the topic, meanwhile, traffics mainly in puns. "Moonzzarella" proved the winning joke, followed closely by "famunda," a crude, slangy reference to a peculiar result of poor hygiene in males. Edam, brie, and Monterey Jack drew support, as did American and cheddar, all of them justifiably beating out "its not cheese it lava" (sic., of course) in subsequent voting. Swiss cheese is another perennial speculation, its distinctive air bubbles mapping nicely onto the moon's cratered landscape. But on the whole, dominant conjectural preferences would appear to result from regional affiliations or individual palates rather than pure reasoning.

Then there's Heywood's "gréene" cheese, which is to say cheese that is unripe or insufficiently aged—green in newness, not color. It's this interpretation that gives us our richest moon-cheese associations, spiraling out into obsession and madness. "They will never cease to regard me as a lunatic," the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln is supposed to have said of her former friends to her sister Elizabeth in 1876, perhaps inadvertently evoking the ancient hypothesis that the moon may affect one's sanity. "I feel it in their soothing manner. If I should say the moon is made of green cheese they would heartily and smilingly agree with me." Talk about strange new frontiers.

Green brings us toward envy, too, as in the Scottish phrase "You could'nae see green cheese but yer een wid reel" — you'll want what you see someone else getting. Who could have lived through the Space Race without seeing narrative parallels traced in the Sea of Tranquility? By virtue of its fullness and brightness and tantalizing distance, the moon has ever existed as an object of value, even when we cannot deduce what form its bounty might take. Until then, the planet's closest neighbor will always seem an ambiguous orb in the sky — or, if you like, a ball of cheese that has yet to cultivate, a delicacy that requires and rewards patience.

And what does cheese mean to this planet, exactly? Cheese is, in the end, a luxury and a privilege; it's money, influence, decadence, addiction. There's a reason 30 Rock's Liz Lemon sang soulfully about her "night cheese," and that reason may be casein, a potentially addicting protein that "breaks apart during digestion to release a whole host of opiates called casomorphins," as Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine put it. When we want a dish to be less healthy and more savory, we add cheese.

Both the moon and cheese are the sort of oddity that we tend to get hung up on

Nevertheless, cheese occupies a realm between extremes. Just as Aristotle considered the moon a boundary separating the mutable planes of existence and the rarefied aether beyond, cheese presents a faultline for vegetarian and vegan diets. Both the moon and cheese are the sort of oddity or exception that we tend to get hung up on, as a surreal clip of QVC host Shawn Killinger and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi sincerely bickering over whether the moon is a planet or star readily attests.

The similarities go on. Cheese, like the moon, is thought to sway the tides of the subconscious. The following comes from a 2005 NPR interview with Nigel White, then secretary of the British Cheese Board, which had decided to study effect of cheese on dreams, inspired by the historical notion that cheese before bed invites nightmares. Volunteers for the project were given two-thirds of an ounce of cheese before bed, and journals in which to record the visions that danced in their heads thereafter:

Mr. WHITE: And they did this for a week, and we found that about three-quarters of everybody said that they slept well every night, and most of those people could remember the dreams that they had. So that was pretty encouraging. And the science of that, we think, is that there is an essential amino acid in milk called tryptophan. Now tryptophan is known to be something which is helpful in normalizing sleep and reducing stress levels. That seemed to make sense to us. What was really wacky was that the type of cheese that people were eating seemed to give them different types of dreams.

BLOCK: Oh, and this would be consistent? In other words, the cheese was the determinative factor here?

Mr. WHITE: Well, as far as we can tell. What we found was that those who were eating blue cheese, Blue Stilton, were coming up with some quite vivid dreams that I'm sure the sleep psychologists would have a field day with in terms of interpreting.

BLOCK: Can you share some with us, or are you bound by science cheese privileges?

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, I mean, one of the volunteers said that she dreamed of a vegetarian crocodile who was upset because he couldn't eat children. And another one dreamed that they had soldiers fighting with each other with kittens instead of guns.

Cheddar was associated with celebrity dreams, Red Leicester with the past and nostalgia, Lancashire with work and officialdom. Cheshire cheese was professed to be a ticket to serene and dreamless slumber. Each proved a gateway to some specific dimension of mind, one small step—or perhaps giant leap—forward. No surprise that we've chosen to recognize our rocky satellite as made of our preferred variety of hors d'oeuvre.

Harmonic as this astro-culinary conflation is to our nocturnal selves, what's finally remarkable about the idea of the moon as cheese is that at this point, it's woven into our narrative DNA, a cliche, a punchline, a known reference to absurdity. We can hardly resist its winking, cosmic tomfoolery. It's inspired nonsense that will doubtless outlast the next thousand crackpot lunar delusions — the contention that the moon is actually hollow, for example, or that it's a massive spacecraft "parked in orbit." The moon being made of cheese bridges us back to the beginnings of enlightenment—no matter what the sell-by date may suggest.

Miles Klee is an editor at the Internet culture site the Daily Dot, as well as author of the novel Ivyland and the story collection True False.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Photo-illustration: Shutterstock/Helen Rosner


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