ANDERSONVILLE — If tyromancy sounds cheesy, that’s because it is.
Tyromancy is the ancient practice of fortune-telling through the observation of cheese, and its renaissance is being conjured here in Chicago by local “kitchen witch” Jennifer Billock.
“There’s more to cheese than meets the eye,” said Billock. “Every piece of cheese tells a story.”
The 40-year-old Andersonville resident, who is a freelance journalist and author, is now offering workshops and private sessions for individuals, groups and even corporate clients on how to use cheese for divination.
Recently, Billock partnered with Uvae Kitchen and Wine Bar, 5553 N. Clark St., for a sold-out class that paired wine tasting with a lesson in history and guidance on how to identify insights in cheese.
From the number, placement and depth of holes, to the appearance of its cracks, craters and veins, each piece of cheese has its own unique way of revealing something about your life, she said. Mold, patterns, size and shape are all clues to a person’s potential destiny.
“A lot of people have these big spiritual questions: ‘Why am I doing this?’, ‘Who am I?’, ‘What should I be doing?’, ‘Where am I going?’” she said. “I think especially now, after COVID, everybody’s reevaluating their lives, and I think it’s a fun way to get a deeper insight into your life on a different level.”
It’s not all that different than any other kind of food or drink appreciator evaluating a piece’s characteristics, she said, just with a little otherworldly twist.
“When you go to a cheese shop and you ask about a piece of cheese, they tell you the whole backstory to it,” she posited. “So, I want people to think more critically about cheese and enjoy it for what it is as a whole — and I also want them to get a little insight into their own lives and their own desires and needs and wants and potentially their journey.”
History of Cheese Magic
Though some may dismiss Billock’s work as hocus pocus, the practice of reading cheese dates back to ancient Greece and Rome in the second century. The craft came into prevalence in the Middle Ages when cheese magic was often used to sniff out a criminal from a lineup.
Folklore states that dreaming of cheesecake is bad, while in Scotland, offering cheese to fairies was supposed to help ensure an abundant harvest. In 14th-century Germany, those looking to become pregnant believed they could enhance fertility chances by throwing a piece of cheese over their shoulders.
Today, themes of tyromancy can be seen in the video game, “The Witcher,” where cheese is used for fortune telling in the form of fondue. In that case, it’s recommended to hold a dipped piece of bread near a candle while thinking of a question and looking at the shadow it casts for an answer.
So, how exactly does one derive meaning from a cheese’s characteristics?
In Billock’s class at Uvae, participants were each given four pieces of cheese and a worksheet with space for notes and observations. With guidance from Billock, they noted different aspects of the cheese — a deep crack may hint toward a period of difficulty, while lines in the cheese may form a letter of someone significant in your life. Participants then worked to translate the clues by connecting them to their own personal thoughts, hopes and questions.
The extra cheese goes home with the class-taker for enjoyment, though Billock said a large wedge or piece isn’t necessary; even a handful of crumbles will do. Or, if someone really wants a comprehensive reading, up to 20 pieces of cheese can be used.
The important factor is the cheese’s appearance and condition — a smooth slice of wrapped American cheese likely isn’t a good candidate because it lacks character. But those feta crumbles, that chunk of bleu, or the moldy cheddar you forgot about are all great choices.
Yet, cheese contains multitudes. Throughout history, other ways to use tyromancy included counting the number of holes in cheese (with even numbers bringing good fortune) and taking stock of their size. Large holes tend to represent a big event or change, while small holes signify something less drastic.
For a person whose question involves multiple potential answers — for example, “Which of my children will be most successful?” — you could set different pieces of cheese out and see which is eaten first, with the eater being the answer to your question. Those seeking a “yes” or “no” response could carve the words into a piece of cheese and wait to see which became moldy first, indicating the answer.
While the message of the cheese can be open to interpretation, the goal is to look for patterns, shapes and details, then paint a picture of what they can mean based on the totality of the traits and the specific question or goal of the fortune-receiver.
Searching for Destiny in Dairy
To skeptics, tyromancy may sound as unbelievable as finding an authentic Brie de Meaux in the United States. But with the current prominence of witchcraft in pop culture, Billock said she wants people to know the craft is saturated in longstanding tradition.
“Witchcraft is super-popular right now,” she explained. “It’s like pop culture witchcraft, but this is actually something ancient, like something that’s been practiced for millennia.”
Billock has been into witchcraft and the occult since she was a teenager, and later moved her craft into the kitchen. She is also a certified tea specialist who reads tea leaves and makes custom spells from herbs. At the start of the pandemic, she expanded into tyromancy, inspired by both her love of cheese and the art of reading energies.
“I absolutely love cheese,” she shared. “I literally eat cheese every night before I go to bed.”
In addition to tyromancy, she also offers spiritual counseling and personalized spells for between $100-200 on a per-session or per-spell basis. For a smaller slice of cheddar, cheese readings cost $45 for a one-on-one session, while groups pay $30 per person.
The vast majority of readings, about 95 percent, she said, resonate with the client, with about 70 percent of readings showing a positive outlook. But, like a powdery brick of soft Limburger, some futures stink.
“It’s not often that things are ending poorly,” she explained. “But I do like to point out when it does show that because … everybody goes through trials.”
The good news is that the readings only provide a snapshot of what things could be like through the lens of the conditions of the cheese. People still have free will to make changes to either pursue, or avoid, what their readings say, Billock said.
“You could have made a choice that would have changed how things were going for you and where things are going to end up in the future,” she said. “That’s another part of how I look at witchcraft and spirituality, [that] we’re in charge of our own destiny.”
With her tyromancy services, Billock said she sees a great opportunity to partner with local wine shops, cheese shops, and bakeries for classes and events, and she’s available to book for private events such as bachelorette parties, themed parties, and workplace workshops.
Closer to Halloween, she hopes to have another event at Uvae. Interest in her last event there resulted in a waitlist.
Ultimately, her practice is about providing a service to people who are curious about their lives in a way that’s intended to be fun yet helpful.
Billock said she relies on cheese to make existential queries feel more concrete: “Once you talk about how your life has been and what you’ve been going through,” she said, “you really see that mirrored in the cheese.”
Editors’ Note: Jennifer Billock is a freelancer for Block Club Chicago.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: