Throughout history, people have sought answers about the unknown. But predicting fates and futures hasn’t always been synonymous with tarot cards and oracles; sometimes, it comes down to what you eat or drink.
Food has long been used for predictive purposes, perhaps due to its accessibility — think of the reading of tea leaves, or telling fortunes with Turkish coffee. Though each society has its own versions of food divination, shape interpretation is the common ingredient in countless fortunes told. In the 1700s, “pulling the kale” was a popular way to predict the qualities of one’s future mate based upon the traits of the pulled-up plant. (Scottish poet Robert Burns mentions the practice in his 1785 poem, “Halloween.”) In some ancient forms of flour divination (aleuromancy), flour and water sloshed in a bowl left shapes of residue to read as fortunes. And then there’s tyromancy, or cheese divination.
Though no one knows exactly when tyromancy originated, written accounts of it date back to the 2nd century in Artemedorus Daldianus’ Oneirocritica books on dream interpretation. In 449, a bishop named Sophronius was accused of tyromancy and other forms of divination at the Robber Council of Ephesus. A millennium later, tyromancy was still going strong, mentioned briefly in Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel novel series from the 1500s. And now, Jennifer Billock, the Chicago-based creator of the Kitchen Witch newsletter, is taking this ancient yet new-to-most form of fortune telling into the 21st century with group readings. “It seemed like a fun way to tell fortunes that also ended up being delicious,” she says.
Tyromancy, Billock explains, “was most popular in the Middle Ages and early modern periods, when influence from the church was growing and people wanted a way to control some part of their own lives or at least have an insight into their destiny. They used cheese because it was an agrarian society and cheese was close at hand from their cows.”
Billock’s own tyromancy practice has grown significantly in the short time she’s been practicing it, and more people now ask for a cheese reading than a reading of tea leaves or oracle cards. “I think it’s more popular than the others because it’s unique,” she says. “It’s somewhat of a novelty, regardless of how accurate it is.”
Eater: What inspired you to get into tyromancy? How did you learn about it?
Jennifer Billock: I was inspired both by my love of divination and my love of cheese! I started a newsletter called Kitchen Witch at the start of the pandemic that focused on the intersection of food and witchcraft. I Googled “weird ways to tell fortunes with food” and came across tyromancy. Since I love both cheese and divination, I researched it and taught myself to do it. There wasn’t any sort of central repository of tyromancy information; I had to go back into antique spell manuals, dream interpretation book transcripts, and more.
Who is your audience?
My audience is pretty much everyone that loves cheese (dairy or vegan). I’ve read for people ranging in age from 17 to 75, and all over the world. It’s about 80 percent women who are interested.
What’s the process? People are told to bring any cheese with variations on the surface, but what happens from there? Do people ask you specific questions?
People can bring up to four pieces of cheese for a reading, covering their past, their present, and their future, with one piece representing an overall look at their life or a specific question. They do not have to tell me their question! A lot of people ask me specific questions after the standard reading to see if the cheese has any advice for them.
What cheeses work best?
The best cheeses for this are Swiss, blue, or anything with visible surface variations. But pretty much any cheese can work. If there’s no surface variation, they break the cheese in half and I read the ridges of the break. If it’s a crumbled cheese, they dump it onto a plate and I’ll read the shapes that it makes. Moldy cheese works too; I look at shapes in the mold. I can also read vegan cheeses!
How do you interpret what you’re seeing? Do you get a strong feeling based on what you see and act on that?
I look for shapes or symbols in the cheese, any ridges, holes, rind bits or crystallization. I also look at mottling on the rind. As examples, a heart shape means love, an arrow means a journey, an image of a dog means companionship, a baby means change is coming. The meaning of the amount of mold depends on what else is going on in the cheese and if it’s in a particular shape or arrangement. Then I interpret what I’m seeing into a full reading. I most often have some things pop into my head about what I need to say based on the cheese. I don’t fully understand it, but whenever that happens, it always — always — resonates with the person I’m reading for.
How often do you do public group sessions? Are these actually readings, or are they more classes in how to read cheese?
I’ve been doing at least a few a month. The public ones always sell out and have a waitlist. I did a bunch of readings this weekend, including two sessions at Beautiful Rind in Chicago. Public sessions tend to be at cheese shops or wine/cheese shops. I partner with the business so we both get something out of the session instead of me just using their space.
Group sessions are both classes and readings. I give a short presentation about the history of cheese in magic, the history of tyromancy, and how to read cheese. Then one person comes up for a reading in front of everyone, and then everyone studies their own cheese as I walk around the room doing readings for each person. I like it to be an interactive experience, so it’s important that attendees are able to try it themselves as well as getting their own reading.
Do people seem to enjoy the readings and do they feel their readings were accurate? Do they come back for additional readings?
People really seem to love it! It’s fun, quirky, and delicious, and you get to see cheese in a new light. What’s not to enjoy? Most people tell me the readings are accurate, some even to the point of taking a picture together with me and their cheese. I get a lot of hugs. So far no one has come back for a second reading, but I’m hoping they will! I would love to track someone’s progress with cheese.
Kathy Adams is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer with a passion for offbeat topics. Her work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, USA Today, SFGate, and more.