The Straight Dope

A friend told me about a woman who had a tumor removed from her ovary (or something in that area), and the tumor had hair and teeth. She was young and I think a virgin, so this couldn't have been the beginnings of a baby. Have you heard of this happening, or is my friend pulling my leg?

-- MelGag, via AOL

No, the tumor wasn't the beginnings of a baby. But yeah, it might have had hair and teeth. Dunno about you, but this ranks way up there on the list of things I could stand not to know. On the other hand, if you can stand to read about Bill Clinton's cigar, you can certainly stand to read about this.

The tumor we're talking about here is called a teratoma. At one time teratomas (which are usually benign) were thought to originate in some sort of embryonic or quasi-embryonic cell gone wrong. But most experts now consider them a type of germ-cell tumor -- in this case a tumor involving an egg. Though the egg is unfertilized, tumor-driven cell division results in a lot of the same stuff you see in a developing fetus, including cartilage, vertebrae, and eyes. It's all chaotically arranged and bears no resemblance to an actual embryo. Nonetheless, because larger teratomas can weigh several pounds,... Well, I suppose all cancer is pretty weird. But this kind is weirder than most.

Why is cheddar cheese orange? Do they color it that way, or is it part of the cheese-ifying process? I know that cheese is made from milk, but I don't think that I could make the milk in my fridge turn orange no matter how long I left it in there. What's up?

-- C.J. Snell, Albuquerque, New Mexico

It's orange because they dye it orange. You knew this, of course. The question is, Why orange as opposed to, say, a nice taupe? As near as cheese historians can make out, the practice originated many years ago in England. Milk contains varying amounts of beta-carotene, the yellow-orange stuff found in carrots and other vegetables. Milk from pasture-fed cows has higher beta-carotene levels in the spring and summer, when the cows are munching on fresh grass, and lower levels during the fall and winter, when they're eating hay; thus the natural color of the cheese varies over the course of a year. So cheese makers began adding coloring agents. Nowadays the most common of these is annatto, a yellow-red dye made from the seeds of a tree of the same name. Dyeing the cheese eliminated seasonal color fluctuations and also played to the fact (or anyway, the belief) that spring/summer milk had a higher butterfat content than the fall/winter kind and thus produced a more flavorful cheese. Figuring if yellow = good, orange = better, some cheese makers began ladling in the annatto in double handfuls, producing cheese that looked like something you'd want to carve into a jack-o'-lantern. In recent years some smaller operations have rebelled and stopped using colorants. Be forewarned -- according to one cheese-making text, uncolored cheese is a "sordid, unappetizing melange of dirty yellow." But at least it's real.

A related question: What's the deal with so-called processed cheese and cheese spreads such as the infamous Velveeta? They're not completely synthetic, as some believe; rather, they're made by mixing and heating natural cheeses and emulsifiers, producing a "homogeneous plastic mass." (I am quoting from my cheese book, you understand.) While we gourmands may sniff at such stuff, it does have the advantages of uniformity, long shelf life, and comparatively low production cost, no small achievement in a world where many are glad to have any cheese at all.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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