No Cover Image

The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America

Heather Paxson
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 332
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppx07
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Life of Cheese
    Book Description:

    Cheese is alive, and alive with meaning. Heather Paxson’s beautifully written anthropological study of American artisanal cheesemaking tells the story of how craftwork has become a new source of cultural and economic value for producers as well as consumers. Dairy farmers and artisans inhabit a world in which their colleagues and collaborators are a wild cast of characters, including plants, animals, microorganisms, family members, employees, and customers. As “unfinished” commodities, living products whose qualities are not fully settled, handmade cheeses embody a mix of new and old ideas about taste and value. By exploring the life of cheese, Paxson helps rethink the politics of food, land, and labor today.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95402-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. 1 American Artisanal
    (pp. 1-29)

    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.¹ 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,...

  7. 2 Ecologies of Production
    (pp. 30-62)

    In southeastern Vermont, a picturesque region of rolling hills, neighborly general stores, and cozy bed-and-breakfasts, David and Cindy Major began making Vermont Shepherd cheese in the early 1990s. David grew up in a house across the road, where his parents still live. The family raised sheep for meat and wool to supplement the income that David’s mother earned teaching kindergarten and his father made by working as a real estate agent, but mostly they did it for fun. After graduating in 1983 from Harvard College, where he studied international development and engineering (and was disappointed not to learn practical skills,...

  8. 3 Economies of Sentiment
    (pp. 63-94)

    Sampling a fresh, clean-tasting chèvre at a New England farmers’ market, I asked the trim woman behind the table if she made the cheese. “I’m the farmer,” she replied. She went on to describe herself as “a farmer who makes cheese,” by which she meant that cheesemaking was “for earning money,” while dairy farming was her love.

    Speaking with me early on in my research, this farmer predicted that I would find two groups of people involved in cheesemaking: people like herself, who were primarily farmers and made cheese as a way to make their farm viable; and people who...

  9. 4 Traditions of Invention
    (pp. 95-127)

    Housed in an old rail depot, the Green County Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe, Wisconsin, displays a host of early industrial cheesemaking artifacts including old-fashioned milk cans, wooden curd rakes, and huge copper kettles once used in Emmenthaler production (fig. 11).¹ During the first half of the twentieth century, Green County, just north of the Illinois border, was known as the Swiss Cheese Capital of the United States.² Its earliest cheese factory opened in 1868, and by 1910 more than two hundred factories producing Swiss-style and Limburger cheeses accounted for the county’s prosperity.³ Only in the 1950s were copper kettles...

  10. 5 The Art and Science of Craft
    (pp. 128-157)

    What makes artisanal cheeseartisanal? More than a decade after the organization was founded, the American Cheese Society (ACS) offered the following definition: “The word ‘artisan’ or ‘artisanal’ implies that a cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art, and thus using as little mechanization as possible in the production of the cheese.”¹

    Artisanal cheese is inescapably defined against the industrial: it is made more by hand than by machine, in small batches compared to industrial scales of production, using recipes and techniques developed through the practical knowledge...

  11. 6 Microbiopolitics
    (pp. 158-186)

    Cheese is fermented and ripened by the metabolic action of microorganisms—bacteria, yeasts, and molds—on the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in milk. To make cheese is to cultivate a microbial ecosystem, or, as microbiologist Rachel Dutton views it, “every cheese is an experiment in microbial ecology.”¹ Working in her Harvard laboratory, Dutton, a Bauer fellow in systems biology, is sampling and sequencing the genetic material embedded in the rinds of naturally ripened cheeses (including several made by people in this book) with the aim of developing a new taxonomy of cheese types based on their bacterial and fungal populations....

  12. 7 Place, Taste, and the Promise of Terroir
    (pp. 187-212)

    Each place at the table was set with two glasses of wine, white and red, flanking a dinner plate arrayed with wedges of seven cheeses surrounding a small dish of an eighth, soft cheese in the center. As I took a chair at the front of the conference room at the Petaluma Sheraton, I noted baskets of crispy flat breads and cups of water close at hand for us amateur tasters, attendees of the third annual California Artisan Cheese Festival, to cleanse our palates between cheeses.¹ Having attended many such recreational tastings, I knew we would first sample the fresh...

  13. 8 Bellwether
    (pp. 213-218)

    Although I met novelist and cheesemaker Brad Kessler when we both attended one of Peter Dixon’s cheesemaking workshops, I got to know him through reading his book,Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese. Goat Songis an American Pastoral. Opening with the author moving away from society (New York City) toward nature (a seventy-five-acre Vermont farm), it chronicles an experiment in agrarian living. Kessler depicts his developing intimacy with a handful of dairy goats and offers an enviable glimpse of the pastoral good life. Yet he also cautions, “Wherever the...

  14. APPENDIX
    (pp. 219-220)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 221-260)
  16. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 261-284)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 285-303)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 304-305)