Posts Tagged 'artisan cheese'

What makes you so blue?

 

Every better future that one wishes for mankind is also necessarily a worse future in some respects, for it is fanatical to believe that a new, higher stage of mankind would unite all the merits of earlier stages and would, for example, also have to produce the highest form of art [cheese]. Rather, each season has its own merits and charms, and excludes those of the other seasons.

– Fritz Nietzsche

Another variation on the usual method: I’m going to start addressing reader comments, when the fancy strikes (and rest assured that my responding or not responding bears no relation to my opinion on the value of a comment: it’s all caprice and vagary, determined more by digestion and moon cycles than Sovereign Reason). As the topic I’m aiming at now is Gorgonzola (a blue cheese), my starting point will be a comment responding to the stories of Margaret Mary Alacoque’s cheese-eating asceticism and Daniel Defoe spooning cheese mites off his early-modern Stilton (another blue cheese):

I’ve never seen stilton covered in mites… And I have certainly never been blessed with visions of Christ as a result of eating cheese. Maybe the good cheeses were fewer and farther between, but was the best Old World stilton leaps and bounds ahead of today’s best? Have we sacrificed punctuated quality for consistent mediocrity? You focus on the low-end of cheeses, but what about the high? Was Mary tripping on mold or blissed out on a small slice of heaven?

And what kind of cheese am I actually eating in my blue cheese dressing?

1. It’s not unusual that you haven’t seen any Stilton covered in mites. Few sheltered contemporaries have. Times are tougher for cheese mites — one of the ecological cruelties of the modern age. But I’ve read in the weeklies they are banding together in unions and demanding the right to return to public view, without shame. They wear red scarves around their bug-waists to signal solidarity. Until their cry is heard (which will require the most sensitive ears), you can see cheese mites on Stilton in the first nature documentary of all time!, called “Cheese Mites” (1903). (I have to link to BBC because I can’t figure out how to embed this one, if it’s even possible.)

(There is no narration, because there was no David Attenborough, and without Attenborough there’s just no point.)

And if you haven’t seen God yet — believe me, you’re the last — here He is, too:

 

fdf

God appears for your personal vision.

2. In “Curse Cheese, and Die” I wasn’t suggesting that Old World cheese was bad in the Old Days, just that some people had problems with it — found it “extremely lowly, offensive and excremental” (Lotichius), or considered it a symbol of death and decay (the original Yorick’s Skull). I don’t know how it tasted. Some people did like it, I think; and whatever cranky writers griped about, people kept on making cheese, undaunted. Was the best Old World Stilton better than ours? (Remember Sebastian the Crab’s pièce de résistance — “The seaweed is always greener …”) Probably in some ways, not so in others. And insofar as artisanal cheesemakers try to blend the virtues of the old (like raw milk, smaller batches, and handmade care) with the new (like improvements in technology, consistency, and control), there’s a good chance that we’re now able to eat the best cheese of all time. And wouldn’t that be gratifying.

For the curious, there’s a cheese sold now called Stichelton that may be closer to the Stilton-original that Defoe found crusted with mites at the Bell Inn, since it’s handmade with raw instead of pasteurized milk. It’s called Stichelton because English law dictates, after a hasty 1996 decision, that name-protected “Stilton” must come from pasteurized milk. If you eat it, you will enjoy it, you may swoon or speak in tongues, but you will not be able to pay your bills and will be reduced in your old age to collecting recyclables.

3. Finally: What kind of cheese is blue cheese?

Blue cheese is blue because it is infested with blue bacteria. There’s no curse upon it, at least none of consequence. The most famous of these tiny beasts is Penicillium roqueforti, originally used to make Roquefort, the most famous French blue; now used to make most all blue cheeses. The other popular strain is Penicillium glaucum, which is found in the milk-jungles of Gorgonzola. These molds began their world-conquests from isolated caves in France and Italy: local aberrations uncovered by chance or Providence, captured and enslaved for the service of humanity. (They probably don’t miss their cave homes terribly: everybody was so quiet, slow, and blind.) These molds viciously defend their terrain, fending off less cheese-worthy breeds of bacteria — the kinds that rot cheese and people alike. And the reason blue cheeses are streaked or blotchy is that the blue molds thrive with exposure to air; so at some point in the maturing process a cheesemaker will pierce the fledging blue with a long needle, providing the mold with tracks of open air to crowd and congest with its piquant flesh. (Some blues are crumbly and porous enough that piercing isn’t necessary.)

 

I’ve already spoiled the “short” part of the “frequent and short entries” ambition, so I’m abandoning the path here. I’ll try to adjust.

Cheese Slang, pt 2: Portuguese and the Pastoral

“I want my illustrations for Dante to be like the faint markings of moisture in a divine cheese . . . Mysticism is cheese; Christ is cheese, better still, mountains of cheese!” — Salvador Dalí

Now that we’ve learned a few ways to demean and insult women with cheese slang, the next step in the course of nature is to broaden our affronts to races and nations. So what are some cheese-related racial slurs?

PORK AND CHEESE: DELICIOUS

First, there’s “pork and cheese,” a pet name for the Portuguese that probably originated in the gas-choked trenches of the first World War. The phrase has nothing to do with what Portuguese soldiers ate; it’s just simple rhyming slang. Like “nanny goat” as a stand-in for “throat,” or “Winona Ryder” for “cider” — or just about every word in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake standing-in for three or four words from various languages:

This in fact, just to show you, is Caseous, the brutherscutch or puir tyron: a hole or two, the highstinks aforefelt and anygo prigging wurms. Cheesugh! you complain. And Hi Hi High must say you are not Hoa Hoa Hoally in the wrong!

. . . which is when puns and rhyming slang get out of hand. (Worse than Aristotle? Maybe not.)

Apparently, “pork and cheese” was most freely used by the New Zealand soldiery. Who could have guessed — the Kiwis?! of all people —

I’m not sure if “pork and cheese” was originally offensive, intentionally or otherwise. We’d like to imagine it was all brotherly trench-talk, jocular word play. Wouldn’t we. Just a jumble of pork and cheese (Portuguese), Mary Anns (Americans), icky fish (English), baseball showers (Central Powers), and the rest of the gang. And we’d like to imagine that the whole World War was just a barroom jostle, punch-in-the-shoulder fun; that nationalism was a passing joke; and that human beings weren’t vile and godless monsters, on the whole. (“The Cruel Animal,” as Mark Twain defines us.)*

It turns out they are.

 

. . . and then the monsters made monster trucks.

. . . and then the monsters made monster trucks.

 

(I’ll mention that cheese might have sparked the first World War, if indirectly.)

 

Portuguese man . . . or imposter?

Portuguese man . . . or imposter?

But whatever its original import, I gather that “pork and cheese” is not considered “brotherly” or “fun” by now. Do not experiment with this phrase, teach it to children, or send it by company email. Urban Dictionary tells me that “If portuguse people are called pork and cheese they’ll kick ur fricken ass or pull out some pork and cheese and make u eat it.” (The first half does sound like a punishment, though the second’s a little reassuring.) Another entry claims the phrase is not derogatory on its own; however, the example provided is, “There are a lot of Pork ‘n’ Cheese living over here these days” — which doesn’t sound very neutral or anodyne to me. But I’m no expert. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Portuguese man in my life. Even if I had, he could have been an imposter.

 

I have read at least one Portuguese author: Fernando Pessoa. And what does Fernando Pessoa say? “I’m not a pessimist. I’m sad.” I’d like to quote more, but I’ll restrict my selections to footnotes to protect the uninterested.**

*

There is a Mexican restaurant near my home that serves a delicious heap of pork smothered in melted cheese. So people aren’t all bad.

The Heap has nothing to do with Portugal, I think.

AND THEN I SAW BEFORE ME A DONKEY GUARDING SHEEP . . .

The Portuguese do eat pork, like the rest of us, and they have and do make cheese — although, like the Spanish, they haven’t exported much until recently. There aren’t too many Portuguese cheeses — not the variety of France or Italy — just a modest number of well-crafted, small production affairs; and they’re usually sheep or goat’s milk, no doubt due to terrain. Two of the more famous varieties that I’ve seen in stores are São Jorge and Castelo Branco. The first is one of Portugal’s rare cow’s milk cheeses, made on the volcano-island São Jorge, of the Azores chain. It is lightly tangy and peppery, firm but crumbly. The second, Castelo Branco, is a sheep’s milk cheese from the mainland, which features the potent aroma of grass and raw poultry accompanying a piquant, buttery, nicely acidic flavor-crescendo. I can more enthusiastically recommend Castelo Branco, having eaten more of it myself. (And I’m the only one I can trust, so far.)

Also, there’s a Wisconsin-made variation of Castelo Branco made at Hidden Springs Creamery, called Ocooch Mountain. It’s a beefy, full, and earthy washed-rind cheese with a very long taste. As with Grayson, the ethics and aesthetics of American artisan cheesemaking are important for Ocooch Mountain. You’re buying and eating the idea, as much as anything. What is the idea? I don’t have a Hidden Springs mission statement on hand, but I can surmise.

The Creamery is a small sheep dairy of sustainable intentions in southwest Wisconsin’s Amish farm country. The sheep are East Friesian (a highly productive breed) and Lacaune (with richer milk, well-known as the udders behind France’s Roquefort); and all the milking and cheesemaking is done seasonally, by hand, with minimal modern technology. The owners even dug out their own natural cave for aging. “The idea,” then, is vitally tied to the poetry and symbolism of the ancient Pastoral Ideal — and if you’re not convinced: the herd is guarded by donkeys. I suppose the practice isn’t unusual (and if you want some tips on how to manage your own guard donkey, the Texas Department of Agriculture can help), so it’s very urbanly-ignorant of me to be shocked and amazed — but there must be something about donkeys and sheep living together in St. John’s Apocalypse, it’s just too shockingly idyllic.

Few things make me more eager to forgo petty city pleasures and take to the hills than the thought that I might, eventually, tend a herd of sheep guarded by a donkey. And I quote Don Quixote:

I should like, O Sancho, for us to become shepherds . . . . I shall buy some sheep, and all the other things needed for the pastoral exercise, and my name will be Shepherd Quixotiz and yours Shepherd Pancino, and we shall roam the mountains, the woods, and the meadows, singing here, lamenting there, drinking the liquid crystals of the fountains, or the limpid streams, or the rushing rivers. With a copious hand the oaks will give us their sweetest fruit; the hard cork trees, their trunks as seats; the willows, their shade; the roses, their fragrance; the broad meadows, carpets a thousand shades and colors; the clear, pure air, our breath; the moon and stars, our light in spite of night’s darkness; pleasure will give us our songs; joy, our weeping; Apollo, our verses; love, our conceits; and with these we shall make ourselves eternal and famous, not only in the present but in times to come.***

 

Love and sheep.

Love and sheep.

 

I’ll admit that American artisanal cheese is much too American and too post-60s to be associated with all the implications of the European Pastoral Ideal of yore — but significant essentials remain intact, especially for the well-to-do urban consumer looking in from outside, reading labels and web-pages. Someday I’ll have to think and write more about American pastoralism and the aesthetic of artisan cheese. Not today: do you see how I’ve babbled already? Also, before I do I’m sure I’ll have to check out a book from the library, something written by an English or American Studies professor, entitled “The Marrow of Life”: American Pastoralism from Henry Thoreau to Artisan Cheese — or something like that, with a special chapter on donkeys guarding sheep — because it’s unacceptable to have an opinion these days without muddling everything with “research” first — which is one reason I rarely have opinions.

Sheep’s milk cheese hasn’t quite caught on yet in the States. The index of the 2007 Atlas of American Cheese has three pages devoted to cow’s milk cheese; just over two pages for goat’s milk; and about a third of a page for sheep’s milk. Knowing, as we all do, what wonders have been accomplished with sheep’s milk all around the Mediterranean, I believe this void on our soil is a sordid crime. I have no explanation; I don’t believe there is any. I will blame whomever I must, I just want the problem fixed. Hopefully that fix is in the works. There’s always hope.****

APOLOGY, PROMISE, AND SOME SCRAPS

I have babbled too much. I can’t go on, for your sake and mine. I can’t and I won’t. If babble weren’t the purpose of The Blog (not only this blog, but blogs in general), then I might be ashamed.***** I’m not. The Cheese Slang posts will have to stretch into one more; and in that final post we’ll discuss the Dutch and learn about the Original Cheese Head. (Religiously, I believe it was Brett Favre; historically, there’s another explanation.)

BUT: So that trivia fanatics don’t leave disappointed at having learned only one bit of cheese slang, I’ll toss in a few quickies:

Cheese = money, as in “government cheese.” During the 80s, the US Government began distributing “Pasteurized Process American Cheese for Use in Domestic Programs” to welfare and food stamp recipients. By implication, then, “cheese” can mean money in general, handouts in general, charity for poor people, handouts for lazy people, a sign of poverty, and much, much more. “Who stole my cheese?” starts to sound urgent.

Cheese it! Not, as Urban Dictionary claims, first used in West Side Story. This phrase is as old as the 1870s, and typically employed within the longer sentence “Cheese it, the cops!”, or to tell somebody to be quiet. It’s thought by some to be connected with “stow it,” which would work in both those contexts — but what does stowing have to do with cheese? This nice commentary brings up the suggestion that “Cheese it!” derives from an older proverb, “After cheese comes nothing.” Everyone’s favorite. “Cheese it,” then, would mean to put a stop to whatever’s going on, to deliver the final words, strike the final blow, exit the final exit. Maybe blow the final trumpet, as Archangel Michael will do to put an end to time at last. No coincidence, then, that “Cheese it!” could be rhyming slang for “Jesus.”

LONG QUOTATION FOOTNOTES

* Of course the churlish Twain certainly had his own racial prejudices: “And so I find that we have descended and degenerated, from some far ancestor–some microscopic atom wandering at its pleasure between the mighty horizons of a drop of water perchance–insect by insect, animal by animal, reptile by reptile, down the long highway of smirchless innocence, till we have reached the bottom stage of development–namable as the Human Being. Below us–nothing. Nothing but the Frenchman.”

** Pessoa: “Should you ask me if I’m happy, I’ll answer that I’m not.” 

*** Compare to Pessoa: “I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me — this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we’re mean-hearted but because we don’t feel like unbuttoning our coat.”

**** Pessoa: “A tedium that includes the expectation of nothing but more tedium; a regret, right now, for the regret I’ll have tomorrow for having felt regret today — huge confusions with no point and no truth, huge confusions . . .”

***** Pessoa: “The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.”

Factory cheese, Artisan cheese, Grayson

O, he is as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house: I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer-house in Christendom.
— Hotspur, in
King Henry IV, Part I

THE GIFT OF SCIENCE

Dr. Pasteur"ization" doing science.

Dr. Pasteur"ization" doing science.

Jesse Williams started his New York cheddar factory — the forerunner of all cheese factories — in 1851. That was before Louis Pasteur began heating milk to slay harmful bacteria and regularize the product (in 1857); before Christian Ditlev Ammentorp Hansen extracted a standardized rennet enzyme from calf-stomach (in 1872); it was before F. J. Lloyd created the acidimeter test, which measures milk’s acidity at any point in the cheesemaking process, again improving results (in 1899); and before Orla-Jensen isolated pure “starter cultures” of select microorganisms, to replace the unreliable sour milk and whey starters of ages past (in 1919). In sum: The factory took stage just on the cusp of cheesemaking’s slide into “science” — at a time when commoners still measured milk heat with elbows.

(If you don’t understand the cheesemaking process enough to respect these innovations, here’s a good summary. I will write my own soon, maybe even for the next post. I’m full of empty promises and inconstant ambition.)

Following Williams, cheese in the U.S. and Europe became increasingly industrialized and precise. Generally, all the breakthroughs above decreased waste and minimized failure. Contrary to the millenarian tirades of hippies and malcontents, science did work a little magic for the common man. In the old days failure-rate was high for cheesemaking, even in monasteries, where God’s Own Watchful Eye was always on alert. And yet (as Juliet Harbutt notes) such disappointments were more often blamed on some dairymaid’s menstrual cycle than on sour milk or careless handling. Many things can go wrong when making cheese, and some significant portion of those things might be out of the cheesemaker’s control, especially when the cheesemaker’s a premodern peasant. In that sense cheese is like love, or empire building. It took some real dirty hard science before people stopped blaming vaginal discharge, witchcraft, and Jewry for bunk cheeses. I guess I consider that progress.

It is true, though — to the credit of purists — that the more industrialized cheese became, the more insipid it got (and might continue to get). It seems that American factory cheese accepted from the beginning a certain subordinate status, along with a more lowbrow, “philistine” or “utilitarian” audience. For instance: An 1867 report from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture documents the defects in American factory cheese, namely, “porosity and bad flavor”; suggests that foul milk with a “fetid and sickening odor” is the primary culprit, no thanks to New England’s unfortunate climate; and then offers the economizing solution that we improve our cheese just enough to appeal to England’s bottom-feeders. And in the New York Times’s coverage of the 1878 dairy fair, the paper reports that American cheeses of more-than-substandard-caliber were entering the world market under false European names — “to the great detriment of our reputation for fine production, though, possibly, to the present profit of middlemen and commission houses.”

But skipping to the present: Only the obtuse fanatic or wild dog would claim that factory cheesemakers have paid no attention over the years to quality. Still, the current inrush of “artisanal” American cheeses presents a totally different approach: blending organic and cosmopolitan food movements, this cheese trend is achieving levels of quality once restricted to sparse European imports. Some “artisanal” makers simply want to make the best cheese they can, while still remaining viable. Some want to slip into this emergent niche market, seizing the hearts and minds of the well-to-do. Most, however, seem to be more preoccupied with general “green food” issues, like sustainability, organicism, local markets, and so on (look at brochures from Whole Foods or your area Farmer’s Market for more keywords).

GRAYSON AT LAST

The Feete pair at Meadow Creek Dairy make a cheese that epitomizes that greenish side of American artisan cheese. I suggest you try it, if you can. It comes in squares instead of wheels, and it is called Grayson. The name might pay homage to Amanda Grayson, mother of Star Trek‘s Spock, or to Dick Grayson, the Christian-civilian name for Batman’s sidekick Robin. I can only speculate.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in disguise.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, in disguise.

After 15 years on their dairy farm in southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the Feete(s?) started making cheese out of their milk. They were motivated by fluctuating dairy prices and the benefits of adding value to their product on the farm — not an unusual origin-story for American artisanal cheesemakers. Their Jersey herd spurts richer milk than common Holsteins (though less of it); the cows graze on rotational pastures free of pesticides and herbicides, and never eat silage; and they’re only milked seasonally, according to the ebbs and flows of the lady-cow cycle. (As a result, this cheese, aged 4 months, is only available from June to March.) All this makes for substantial and flavorful raw milk cheeses; but also — and this is part of the point — cheeses with some kind of moral integrity.

Grayson recently won two major awards at the American Cheese Society‘s 2008 Conference: runner-up for Best in Show, and first place for Farmstead Cow’s Milk Cheese. Not insubstantial, if you’re into cheese awards. I’m posting on Grayson because of the second award. “Farmstead” means that all of the production is done in one place, on one farm: the grass grows, the beasts eat, they are milked, the milk is cheesed, the cheese is aged. There is a strictly culinary appeal to this purity, since the farmstead cheesemaker has absolute control over his or her product, from beginning to end. No “fetid and sickening odors” will slip past the cheesemaker who doubles as dairy farmer. In fact, some American artisans earn reputations for fussiness and perfectionism — only accepting milk when the pastures are prime, for example. (Uplands Cheese, producer of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, is often cited as a quintessential American “designer” cheese.) In addition, on the “ethical” end, no unwelcome practice will taint the moral valor of the cheese, less petroleum is consumed, dada dada dada.

(Yes, weep, for such finely tuned farmstead cheeses can be very, very expensive. Happily, Grayson is on the cheaper end of the spectrum.)

Another reason I pinpointed Grayson was to juxtapose it with Taleggio. (To see my prior post on Taleggio, click here.) It’s a standard refrain in cheesewriting that there are few true American originals: most of the cheese here derives too directly from some “ancestor” cheese in Europe. (Jack, Colby, and Brick are three accepted originals that I can think of, off the cuff.). It’s a strange evolutionary logic I don’t quite approve — but this is no place for “positions,” not now. Many artisanal cheeses are also “inspired” by old European winners; and in this respect, Grayson follows Taleggio. Grayson is also a washed-rind cows milk cheese that attains a silky, dense, custard texture without gooing out too much. Grayson and Taleggio look similar, too — pale yellow paste (the interior, non-rind of a cheese), orange rind — and with real handmade cheese appearance can indicate a lot about what the cheese is and how it tastes. You can eat both rinds, and both rinds taste like wet sand.

Eating the two cheeses, however, will reveal enough differences to justify coexistence. Grayson has a more odorous rind: more sand, seaweed, and sewage. The inside smells sweeter, openly milky, with a little fruit and a little more sock. From a small distance I smell ripe banana. (Why am I smelling this cheese from a distance? What happened?) The taste takes longer to warm up on your tongue; then there’s more tartness, more sweetness — higher tones — and perhaps less range than Taleggio. Grayson also tasted like poultry to me, full grown cocks and hens, whereas I only remember the eggs in Taleggio. These are worldly wonders.

Goat and background included for scale.

Grayson: goat and background included for scale.

The Original American Cheese, plus Anecdotes

“The history of the world is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a universal principle and conferring subjective freedom.” — Hegel

“Progress might have been alright once but it has gone on too long.” — Ogden Nash

(To quiet complaints about the last long post, I’ve broke this one into smaller sections, each with a heading. I hope it “feels” like several small, acceptable posts, even if it is really one large, unacceptable post.)

THE ORIGINAL AMERICAN CHEESE

The culmination of . . .

The culmination of . . . ?

As far as I know, none of the Native Americans were cheesemaking people. They had other things to do; so there are no “ancient” American cheeses. And nobody’s suggested to me that pilgrim cheesemakers, colonial cheesemakers, or settler cheesemakers felt compelled to creatively experiment with their medium, not for the better, at least. Cheeses and recipes were brought from overseas, and cheeses were made at home, sold in smalltime markets. Cheddar was the big thing. It seems to have been a practical cheese, then as now: manageable despite the volatile New England climate, which defeated most cheeses. By 1790 American cheddars were exported back to England, the original motherland of the breed (which is not so much named after the town of Cheddar as the Cheddar Gorge, a tourist attraction since the 18th century that gathered hungry crowds and popularized the local cheese). Before the curious single-serving packets now called “American Cheese,” Brits called imported U.S. cheddar “American cheese,” or “Yankee cheese.” Americans called it “yellow cheese” and “store cheese,” sometimes “applepie cheese.”

Too much cheddar for the man on the nickel!

Too much cheese for the man on the nickel!

The Brits looked down on Yankee cheese. But Americans were doing their best, probably; and sometimes they even felt pride in their yellow cheese. For example: the people of Cheshire Massachusetts once made a 1235-pound, 4-foot by 15-inch cheddar and gave it to President Thomas Jefferson, for inspiration I suppose. That was in 1802. They inscribed on the rind one of Jefferson’s famous slogans: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” They wrote that on a cheese. The pastor that orchestrated the Mammoth Cheese‘s creation, Elder John Leland, assured Jefferson that none of the milk was made by any slaves, or Federalists — since this cheese was also a political gesture. Leland thought it was the best damn cheese ever made. I imagine Jefferson was nonplussed.

(Andrew Jackson was awarded a cheese to match Jefferson’s in 1845. The cheesemakers wanted to assert that Jackson deserved Jefferson’s “every honor” and more — even cheese honors. [For more on White House cheeses, look here.] And in 1890 a couple of British villages made a 1250-pound, 9-foot-diameter cheddar and gave it to Queen Victoria, who no doubt envied Jefferson’s cheese as much as Jackson did.)

Some claim that Jefferson, thanks to Cheshire’s brief madness, was the first man of authority dubbed The Big Cheese. Another authority suggests that the phrase comes first from the Persian or Urdu word chiz, for “thing,” which the English picked up in India. The imperialists started calling things cheeses, with a positive connotation; so by 1890 they were calling big things big cheeses. Jefferson was indeed a big thing in his day; but he may have been a little early for the epithet.

IMPERIAL SNOBBERY AND AMERICAN IMPATIENCE

Google Books found me an issue of the British Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge from March 12, 1842, which features an article on “American Cheese” of the time. It contains, not surprisingly, some useful knowledge on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:

“The characteristics of American cheeses consist in their greater diameter or breadth in proportion to their thickness; in their possessing their natural colour, little or no artificial colouring being employed; in their being full of holes or eyes; in possessing a pungent or rather bitter taste, and in a bandage of linen or cotton cloth being passed round their outward rim. In some matters the Americans have adopted modes and customs different from ours and from those of other countries, and by no means superior to those they have rejected or altered. [I do appreciate the passive aggressive condescension of that deliberately overgeneral sentence.] Cheese-making may be considered one of those; and, as a consequence, they produce a quality of cheese decidedly inferior to our own.”

The author also blames American inferiority on a climate too extreme for cheese, and on misplaced priorities that valued salt and, above all, speed (in coagulation, curd breaking, and pressing) over finished quality.

THE YANKS CHANGE CHEESE FOREVER

So maybe Americans didn’t successfully innovate or stake out a cultural niche with cheese, until later — until 1851, when Jesse Williams established the America’s first cheese factory in New York — possibly the first “modern”/industrial cheese factory in the world. (Arguably, cooperative American systems were already practiced in other areas — in 1841, for instance, after the People of Wisconsin “had arrived at that point of refinement when they longed for cheese” and banded together to serve that cause [see Pickett] . But Jesse Williams gets the credit and none of us have the time to research and debate it.) Jesse Williams’ father was a famously good cheesemaker, but fate had condemned young Jesse to meager talent in the trade. Jesse was living under a shadow, shaming his maker; so he conceived the cheese factory as a means of still collaborating in business with his father. Which is touching. There is Disney-movie potential in this story. With his factory, Jesse was able to buy up milk from many local dairy herds, mix it all together with his own and his father’s, and churn out extra-large cheeses that were more uniform, consistent, and economic. Of course his factory made cheddar. It changed everything.

THE FALL AND REDEMPTION OF MAN, REPLAY

From there, today’s Standard American Cheese Tale, as culled from glossy books and internet sites, goes like this: America’s main cheesemaking-innovation was mass production, efficiency: Williams’ factory-style cheese. The States were the vanguard of the Great Industrialization that then swept Europe, and with the help of two World Wars crippled, bludgeoned, all but garroted traditional cheesemaking culture — in part, for a time. During the Dark Ages of American Prosperity the Forces of Darkness strengthened their grip on the cheesesoul of the people; Americans were eating plastic scraps and used car parts and calling it food; given a few more decades they would have gladly consumed raw cancer boiled in turpentine, if nothing stopped them . . . culture and decency rotted and ruined, the human spirit severed from its source . . . Until 60s counterculture at last declared everything like that wrong, evil, Mammon- or Moloch-ish. And then those movements promoting organic, local, sustainable food began gathering their followings. 80s affluence encouraged creative-types to buy farms and experiment, the fervor caught on; and so it is that now we have a fabulous artisanal cheese culture coming into its own. It’s up to our generation to spread the good news and carry on the work.

Yes, it’s a suspiciously messianic tale that twists some undeniable truths, and so standardized that the discriminating cynic must suspect it’s some large fraction myth — but I don’t know right now, and I won’t take a stand on it  — maybe later — I’m not here now to take stands — I’m unsure what I’m here to do — I was supposed to write about Grayson still. And I will, but I was sidetracked. So:

Next time on “After Cheese Comes Nothing”: Posts on St. Hildegard, Taleggio, and American cheesemaking culminate in a single anticlimactic post on Grayson, an artisanal American washed-rind cheese from Virginia.


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