WEST VILLAGE — Roughly 20 New York City high school students gathered at Murray's Cheese on Bleecker Street Tuesday afternoon to learn the math and science of cheese making.
Public school students had the day off on Tuesday, but some of them chose to roam around the city soaking up real-life lessons in math, science, engineering and technology.
What would make a teen opt for more schooling over a free day? At Murray's, motivations varied from extra credit ("I need it"), to genuine interest ("I like cheese"), to the machinations of a higher power ("Our dad signed us up").
"He emailed us about it," said Lily Greenberg, a freshman at LaGuardia, with her brother Adam beside her. "Who even reads email?"
The lessons were part of the Department of Education's NYC Career STEM Day. Murray's has a long-running relationship with the program.
"They reach out every year and we're ready for it. We're happy to do it," said Dan Belmont, the Murray's Cheese Education and Event Manager.
The lesson began with Murray's "cavemaster," Bushwick resident Peter Jenkelunas, 31, who is in charge of aging the cheese in Murray's aging facilities, which they call "cheese caves."
Jenkelunas explained how cheese is made from milk, bacteria, rennet and salt, and how different animals' milk require different proportions of protein and fat.
He went over the different types of mold that grow on the cheese in the aging process, and how they affect the taste and smell of the cheese. Butyric acid, for example, had a cartoon of two dirty socks beside it, prompting laughter from the students.
"You don't really want that one," Jenkelunas said. "Some people say it tastes like old vomit."
Questions from the students were largely mold-related, spurred by suspicion at the notion that the rind of the cheese — now known to be mold — is meant to be eaten. (It is, Jenkelunas promised. "You can really eat anything on cheese, as long as it's not rubber or wax.")
The head of Murray's Buying Department, Steven Millard, was there to teach the students the "math" of cheese, but first walked them through a tasting of the cheese samples laid out on plates in front of them.
He explained that we taste different flavors in different parts of our mouths — bitterness, for example, is sensed in the back of the tongue — and advised them to abandon the utensil beside their plate and "use all your senses."
"Forget your forks and use your fingers," he urged, to widespread skepticism. Most of the kids stuck to the forks.
"Do you guys train your employees? Is there, like, a cheese training camp?" Lily asked, eliciting laughter from her peers.
In fact, there are several types of cheese training camps, Millard said, including a three-day "boot camp" that involves eating three pounds of cheese. ("Wow," said a genuinely awestruck Lily.)
Employment was, understandably, on a lot of the students' minds, given it was a career-focused STEM day.
Murray's wasn't the only destination for students, as Lizbeth Flores and Brianna Barrera, both 14 and in the ninth grade at John Bowne High School in Flushing, had just come from the Museum of Natural History, where they got to touch skulls.
"I want to see how things are made, especially if there's science behind it," Barrera said, explaining why she wanted to include Murray's on her tour. "That's even more interesting."