Why does Swiss cheese have holes in it?

–Cassie, via America Online

No one wants to face up to this squarely, so I guess it’s up to me. Swiss cheese has holes in it because of bacteria passing gas. Contemplating a typical piece of Swiss cheese, the majority of whose holes, by USDA regulation, must measure between 11/16 and 13/16 of an inch in diameter, you may think: Here was a little microbe with a serious case of indigestion. But actually it’s the work of armies of microbes, specifically Propionibacteria shermanii. The P. shermanii consume the lactic acid excreted by other bacteria (the ones that cause the milk to turn into cheese in the first place) and belch, toot, and otherwise exude copious amounts of carbon dioxide. This produces what the Swiss-cheese industry, hoping to distract you from the reality of the matter, calls “eyes.” It’s a beautiful, natural process, with the advantage that it enables cheese makers to charge good money for a product that by law is partly air.

But the air/cheese ratio will be changing soon. It seems Swiss cheese with big holes fouls up modern slicing machinery. So the industry is now asking that the regulations for Grade A Swiss be revised to make the average hole only three-eighths of an inch in diameter–one quarter the area it is today. (Small-hole Swiss is now classified as Grade B, which commands a lesser price. Libertarians, needless to say, are frothing at the very idea of the government regulating Swiss cheese hole size.) For many it just won’t be the same. One nudnick on the Internet, showing the effects of too much consumer brainwashing, claims the best part of Swiss cheese is the holes: “If only there were more holes and they were bigger”! Come over to my house, bud, and I’ll sell you some cheese that’s all holes. The rest of you can console yourselves with the thought that you’ll be getting more cheese and less thin air.


The following urgent dispatch refers to Cecil’s re-port in More of the Straight Dope on etaoin shrdlu, the enigmatic phrase that occasionally appeared in newspapers in the old “hot type” days when Linotype operators ran off a test line and forgot to discard it. The letters are in two rows at the left end of the Linotype keyboard, their order reflecting their frequency of use in English, e being the most common, t the second, and so on. Skip Newhall writes:

“I recently completed my own count of the frequency of letters in English-language text. Here are some results that may be of interest. I surveyed approximately 1,000 diverse works, including articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), The Iliad, The Odyssey (Homer), The Descent of Man (Charles Darwin), Peer Gynt (Henrik Ibsen), Faust (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides), several writings of Karl Marx, the King James Bible, publications of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes), the U.S. Constitution, the Book of Mormon, sections of the California state vehicle code,…and hundreds of others: fiction and nonfiction, scientific journals, tra-vel articles, music history, etc.

“Total characters: 100,676,543 (including blanks and returns).

“Total printing characters: 80,937,206.

“Total alphabetic characters: 75,984,149 (case insensitive).

“The case-insensitive results: e–9,515,228; t–6,907,773; a–6,197,398; o–5,832,351; n–5,278,477; i–5,259,643; s–4,833,624; h–4,768,804; r–4,500,078; d–3,223,872; l–3,106,767; u–2,163,536; [etc].

“You will notice that the order of n and i is reversed from that in etaoin, though the counts differ by less than 0.2 percent, a statistically insignificant difference. The full results for all 94 distinct printing characters: e–9,375,509; t–6,649,073; a–5,915,817; o–5,719,563;…+–176; ^–158; –68.

“As an added bit of information, there are 63,411,479 pairs of characters. The 28 most frequent pairs of case-insensitive letters and their counts are….” (Check out the Straight Dope Web site if you really want to know.)

Pretty impressive, Skip. So tell me, exactly how long has it been since you’ve had a date?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.