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The Life of Cheese Crafting Food and Value in America

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American Artisanal

Andy and Mateo Kehler started milking cows and making cheese at Jasper Hill Farm, in northern Vermont, in 2003. Just one year into production, their Bayley Hazen Blue and Constant Bliss were featured in restaurants and gourmet shops from Boston to Chicago. Jasper Hill exemplifies the New American Cheese, the artisanal fabrication of cheeses by hand, in small batches, in the fashion of a European culinary style. These cheeses are intended to be savored on their own, or perhaps with a glass of wine. The Kehler brothers represent a new kind of American food producer: college educated and urban raised, they are becoming farmers, investing in their land and local community, and dedicating themselves to mastering the entire process of cheese production, from pasture to plate.

I first visited the Kehlers in March 2004. To reach Jasper Hill Farm, I drove through wooded hills dotted with crumbling buildings and rusted farm equipment. Lacking a major waterway, Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, a trio of optimistically named counties south of the Canadian border, missed out on the state's nineteenth-century logging boom and still retains the feel of a frontier territory. Andy and Mateo enjoyed childhood summers up here on Lake Caspian, following a family tradition reaching back to the 1920s. They remember their grandmother, the daughter of a traveling salesman who had bought a lakeside fishing hut here, telling tales from her youth of local residents descending from hilltop farmsteads dressed in home-styled furs. Today, at least during the spring mud season, many farms up here look more desperate than quaint.

Arriving at the farm, I was greeted by Andy, the brother in charge of the Ayrshire cows we later visited in the barn. I tugged hygienic hospital booties over my shoes before entering the sunlit cheese room the Kehlers built beside the milking parlor. Here, Mateo, his wife, Angie, and Andy's fiancée, Victoria-all then in their early to mid-thirties-were at work making an English-style cheese they called Aspenhurst. While Mateo fed heavy, rectangular slabs of pressed cheese curd through a noisy shredding machine, Andy leaned over the vat to join Victoria in agitating the shredded curd with his bare hands to prevent clumping. They stirred in a generous amount of salt, too. In Wisconsin, people snack on fresh cheese curds much like these, but in Vermont curd is merely a step along the way to making cheese. Using handheld scoops, the Kehlers hooped (that is, packed) the curd into cylindrical molds that they slotted into another machine, called a horizontal gang press, to squeeze out the remaining whey. It was steamy-hot, physically demanding work using shiny new models of the sort of equipment that would have been employed a hundred years ago by tradesmen working in cheese factories throughout New England's dairying regions, before industrial automation took over in the middle of the twentieth century.

As curd was being shredded, salted, and packed into wheels, Mateo shared their vision: "We wanted to make some money" and live in Vermont, "the most beautiful place in the world." Andy, a carpenter who worked as a building contractor after graduating from the University of Vermont, had been looking for an alternative occupation because as a contractor, "you make money off of other people's labor." Mateo, who studied international development at a Quaker college in the early 1990s and worked with a microfinance development organization in India after graduation, was politically committed to sustainable agriculture. Vermont, Mateo told me, is just as much in need of agricultural development as any struggling farm community the world over; his adopted state had lost fifty dairy farms the previous year. The Kehlers set out to create a precedent for agricultural entrepreneurialism that might reverse the trend of farm closures. From the beginning, their plan was to help develop the local economy in a way that would compromise neither what they described as the "culture of independence" of Vermont's people nor the "working landscape" of its environment. In 1998, using savings and some family money, the brothers bought 223 acres with a dilapidated barn. One of their early business models explored the market potential for organic tofu; another considered a microbrewery. But then they "looked around and said, 'Why not cows?'" Cows, they explained, are not only part of the existing landscape; they are central to Vermont's identity.

Labor-intensive, handmade cheese became the key to their plan. Dairy may be "the basis of the Vermont economy," Mateo explained, but fluid milk, sold by bulk tank to processing plants, has become a "failed industry" for the state. "We can't compete with the economies of scale in California," he said, citing a dairy in Barstow with nineteen thousand cows. In 2002, half of Vermont's dairy farms housed seventy cows or fewer. "California is going to bury Vermont in a tidal wave of cheap milk," Mateo predicted. As the Kehlers see it, Vermont's dairy future lies in artisan-made cheese. A family here can make a decent living with twenty-five or thirty cows, they told me-if they add commercial value to the milk by processing it into high-end cheese for a high-end market.

Today in the United States, upwards of 450 enterprises handcraft cheese from milk purchased from nearby farms or produced by the cheesemakers' own animals. The Kehlers are riding the crest of a wave of new artisan cheesemaking enterprises whose force has more than doubled since 2000, as indicated in fig. 1. Over the past thirty years, former professionals and recent college graduates have followed ex-hippies in renovating run-down farms and reinventing "farmstead cheese," an informal designation for cheese made artisanally on the dairy farm that supplies the milk. The vanguard was young women moving back to the land in the 1970s and commercializing their vocation in the 1980s. Today's cheesemakers come from wide-ranging backgrounds, including business management, nursing, homemaking, fine arts, science education, and gourmet retail. Heritage dairy farmers, who inherited their farms or married into farm families, represent a growing number of farmstead cheesemakers. 

Here is a deceptively basic recipe for making cheese: Heat milk; sour it by adding bacterial cultures to convert milk sugar (lactose) to lactic acid; add an enzyme (such as rennet) to help coagulate the fermenting milk. Once the milk has set into a gel-like substance, use long blades to cut the curd into pieces and release the watery whey, drain, salt, and pack the curds into molds. Endless variations-including the choice to start with goat's, sheep's, or cow's milk; the selection of added bacterial cultures; the timing and temperature of the steps of the cheesemaking process; whether a cheese is eaten fresh or aged for months or even years-result in hundreds if not thousands of varieties of cheese. In his 2007 Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, Jeff Roberts catalogued newly invented artisanal cheeses rubbed with cocoa and lavender, washed in buttermilk and hard ciders, or covered with bloomy coats of edible mold. The novelty of such new American cheeses is secured in no small part by whimsical names (Purple Haze, Barely Buzzed, Fuzzy Wheel, Hyku) that convey the personal imprint of an individual producer and mark a contrast with Europe's place-based cheese names (Comté, Taleggio), which carry the historical weight of collective regional traditions.

"The art of cheesemaking," writes dairy scientist Paul Kindstedt, "is really about working with, shaping, and to some extent controlling the forces of nature," and so in examining the artisanal culturing of cheese we encounter broader questions about how "nature"-environmental, microbial, animal, human-should best be inhabited, incorporated, and regulated. As people work pastureland, tend livestock, handcraft cheeses, and ready them for market, they manage forces that are symbolic and institutional as well as organic. The Life of Cheese, then, refers both to the working lives of people dedicated to cheesemaking, and to the liveliness of the substance with which they work. Idiosyncratic and future-oriented, celebrating entrepreneurial innovation rather than consensual customs of the past, the culture of artisan cheesemaking in the United States is decidedly American.

What Makes Good Food Good?

Reporting on ethnographic research carried out in New England, Wisconsin, and California dairy regions, this book travels onto farms and into creameries to investigate efforts to produce American cheese as good food. Cheese may be considered to be good on the basis of taste and healthfulness and also on the basis of whether it is produced well-in other words, thoughtfully, even ethically. While handmade cheese undoubtedly generates gustatory pleasure and social status for its consumers, this book focuses on the values that making cheese generates for its rural and peri-urban producers.

The value of food to humans endlessly transcends quantitative measures, whether of kilocalories or grams of fat, or in dollars and cents. Beyond providing a source of nutrition and an economic livelihood, food is everywhere a medium of cultural and social exchange. Its preparation invites creativity and requires an investment of material resources, while eating and feeding offer opportunity for pleasure as well as denial. Through food, people solidify a sense of self and connectedness to (or distance from) others. Food offers a strong anchor for identity because eating well-adequately, appropriately-holds not only the promise of being well (healthy) but also of being good (moral). Think of the role of food as the nutritive medium of motherhood, or as the virtue of generous hospitality. Consider too, though, how food may constitute a bone of contention, a site for playing out social conflict, discord, or resentment. Food does not merely symbolize status and prestige; it is a transformative substance through which social relations are manipulated and power is enacted.

Food's goodness may thus be evaluated in terms of bodily and social well-being, purity, status, emotional impact, ease of preparation, cost, and, not least, deliciousness. The layering of multiple values that constitute food's goodness can make fraught the politics of eating: how we enact the adage "We are what we eat," or pose the accusatory challenge "You are what you eat." Ethical trade-offs and inconsistency in food choices are hardly surprising, since what makes food culturally and culinarily desirable is not always the same as what is understood to make food nutritionally or socially beneficial.

Similar qualifications manifest in producing food. Artisan producers want to make healthful and delicious food, but more than that, in making good food they want to make a good life for themselves, pursuing engaging and gratifying work. Insofar as these rural entrepreneurs are guided not solely by profit but also by sentiment, artisan cheesemakers in the United States are similar to the winegrowers of Bordeaux, chocolatiers in Paris, and fish traders in Tokyo studied by my anthropological colleagues. While the Kehler brothers may pitch their enterprise in political terms of remaking a segment of the food system, others are engaged in far more modest, even idiosyncratic endeavors. Most neither proselytize nor pretend to offer solutions to entrenched structural problems with our current food system, such as inner-city landscapes, called food deserts, that are denuded of grocery stores yet cluttered with cheap fast-food outlets. Rather, they are mindful of the everyday practice of their own lives. Anthropologist Judith Farquhar suggests, "Agency in everyday life is a form of craftwork involving intimate collaborations among embodied humans and material objects like food. Like recipes and the cooking skills on which they rely, like tasting food and savoring the company of others, the crafting of a good life is an improvisational project in which a great deal goes without saying." The Life of Cheese offers close attention to how the crafting of cheese and the crafting of a life mutually inform each other.

By what accounting might it seem sensible to employ nineteenth-century-era machinery and craft techniques to make cheese for commercial sale when a fully industrial food system has accustomed us to more efficient, less expensive, and more consistent ways of producing food? Those who handcraft cheese in the United States today do so because the value they gain by doing it exceeds its limited potential to generate income. Although the daily discipline of artisanship varies as cheese is made in fifty-gallon kettles or fifteen-hundred-gallon vats, from raw or pasteurized milk, by third-generation cheesemakers or former housewives or business executives, artisan cheesemakers are united by a belief that the qualities that make their cheeses taste good are fundamentally connected to personal values that make the cheeses good for them to make.

This book brings the interpretive analysis so richly applied to food consumption to the study of its commercial production to explain why cheesemakers believe in the goodness of their endeavor and of their cheese. How do culinary and moral values influence producers' practical encounters with pastureland, dairy animals, and the biochemical substance of milk that they transubstantiate into cheese? How are those values conveyed to a consuming public and translated (or possibly undermined) through market exchange? What can we learn from artisan food-making about the politics of nature and the ethics of the marketplace in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

The Value of Artisan Cheesemaking Today

Artisan cheesemaking is part of a broader cultural transition in the United States as key cultural values have been challenged by, or are being adapted in response to, deleterious legacies of twentieth-century industrial agriculture. Our supply of cheap food comes at the cost of farm closures, periodic outbreaks of food-borne illness, and the inhumane treatment of farmworkers and livestock; in this light, the technoscientific promise of unlimited progress through rationalized, industrial efficiency rings hollow. From the best-selling book Fast Food Nation to the Academy Award-nominated film Food, Inc., popular exposés fuel public critique of agribusiness as usual. At the same time, disillusionment with corporate America following urban deindustrialization and scandals of executive malfeasance has precipitated a groundswell of interest in making do for oneself. Half a century ago the American Dream promised a union-negotiated family wage to workers who drove cars they helped build and owned houses they could afford; today, the collective mythology of rugged individualism and self-realization carries on in a very different register as do-it-yourself craft and gardening collectives are moving into postindustrial urban landscapes, while suburban chicken coops have become "The Most Exciting Backyard Accessory since Lawn Darts." Artisan cheesemaking represents not a new cultural trend so much as (for those who take it up) a reordering of values that are pervasive and enduring in American culture-autonomy and self-determination, belief in the virtue (and reward) of hard work, a communitarian ethos of neighborliness, concern for the natural environment, and faith in future progress.

While some cheesemakers got into artisanship as a sustainable retirement project, others work to earn a living for themselves and their families. Like the Kehlers, many are new farm families, new to farming and also new families: young couples moving to the countryside to raise children; lesbian women and gay men making a life and a living together; multigenerational constellations of reconvened family members united by commitment to collective enterprise. But the story of America's farmstead cheesemaking resurgence is also a tale of multigenerational dairy farmers hoping to escape the dilemma of industrial agriculture: either get big (and squeeze out your neighbor) or get out. Both groups wrestle with multiple, sometimes competing values as they pursue work they find personally satisfying.

Through the stories I tell and interpret in this book, I aim to demonstrate the complexity of cheesemakers' decisions and actions. My intent is not to make judgments about what cheesemakers do and decide. When people are motivated to become artisan food-makers out of concerns that they share with consumers of local and Slow foods-support for rural economies and communities, commitment to feeding their families healthy yet tasty food-I ask: how might such sentiments inform and be modified by the practical concerns of animal husbandry, product development, and business growth?Working to realize multiple values simultaneously can create moral ambivalence as well as economic uncertainty. Many cheesemakers struggle to discover how they might grow big enough as a business to cover their bills, pay themselves a modest salary, and put away some savings, but without growing so big that they find themselves sitting in an office doing managerial work, rather than outside with their animals or submerging their arms in sweet-smelling curd, realizing the personal values they initially pursued in becoming commercial cheesemakers. Producers' uncertainty is exacerbated when a product's strongest selling point may be the subjective value it embodies for its maker: the four generations a family has lived and worked on a farm, say, or the personal names given to dairy goats. In marketing the personal values they derive from making cheese, artisan cheesemakers risk exaggerating the influence of those values in generating a cheese's material qualities, its apparent intrinsic goodness.

The figure of the artisan within an industrial society is an uneasy one, embodying cultural anxieties about middle-class status and security. In Europe, artisans are prone to being considered throwbacks to a premodern era, holding static the tradition against which the rest of society measures its modernization. French chocolatiers in Susan Terrio's analysis, for example, "represent what the French like to tell themselves about themselves in terms of a traditional work ethic, family values, community cohesion, and the noncompetitive practices of small business," but at the same time they remain "manual workers whose businesses require considerable self-exploitation." Their self-employment affords economic upward mobility but without the refinement that higher education affords. Deemed insufficiently cultured, artisan entrepreneurs in France are suspected of being "vulnerable to economic greed," liable to overcharge customers and exploit workers. In the United States, artisan cheesemakers may also represent what many Americans like to tell themselves about their own work ethic, family values, and community cohesion, but here romanticizing farming and artisan enterprise as honest work can generate unrealistic expectations for moral purity. Popular celebrations of local and artisanal foods wax poetic about the agrarian Good Life-think of novelist Barbara King