Homage to Cheese
Words by Kirstin Jackson Photographs by Gentl & Hyers
Cheese, while delicious, also has a storied past and a cultural significance that we may not often consider.
Occasionally, when it’s time to tell someone I make a living from touting the glories of fermented milk, I pause. Although I can only think of a couple things I’d rather do than sip bourbon while teaching students about southern cheese and spirits, or travel around the country visiting creameries, petting baby animals and sampling fledging wheels for researching my upcoming book on domestic cheese, I know that there are still people who don’t see beyond the yellow and white cheese bricks sitting on their grocery store shelves. While I see cheese as a rich, nourishing, cultural and historical food whose milky beauty has inspired legions of food photographers, to some artisan cheese is little more than protein, fat and sugar in a pretty package.
Despite any initial hesitation, my love for artisan dairy and reaching its future disciples means I must reveal my calling. When I do, most people smile and say they dream of having access to the many pounds of cheese I try not to consume every week. Then there are the few non-believers who don’t understand what there is to study—and they are why we forge ahead. Professional cheese lovers like me believe it is only a matter of time before these people realize that artisan wheels are far more than just nutrients covered in a shapely rind.
We know that cheese, like wine or sugar, is a force. Its flavors seduce us and address our most basic desires and evolutionary needs. It helps to bring people together and support communities. It can serve as an instrument that allows cheese makers to make their mark in the socioeconomic sphere, and it is a creative, artistic outlet that helps bring beauty to everyday life. With so much going on in every wheel, it’s not hard to understand why people already feel so connected to cheese, and how those who don’t already, will.
First, cheese exerts its power by blindly seducing us on physical and emotional levels. Melted on a pizza or served with crusty bread, cheese speaks to our most basic and subconscious culinary desires. The first food to quiet our earliest cries was mother’s milk. Take that milk, make it even richer, sweeter and saltier—in cheese form—and you have a connection to your earliest emotional and social bonds. But you also have something that strikes evolutionary chords. Our ancestors sought sweet, rich foods that delivered ample energy so they could provide for and protect their family units. Today we subconsciously seek out the same things, and cheese is one of the lushest, energy-delivering foods out there. Cheese: sensory points galore. Us: defenseless.
Cheese also helps people survive beyond offering nutrition—it binds communities together, forms important alliances, and provides a commodity. For example, in the ninth century, French families in the Franche-Comté region who didn’t have enough milk to make large wheels of Comté for the winter, didn’t just make smaller wheels. They formed cooperatives, pooled their milk, centralized cheese making and aging and redistributed the wheels in their community and beyond. This tradition is still the norm today.
People in the United States also support themselves and provide for their community by making cheese. When milk prices dove during the recession, most dairy farmers across the nation were unable to break even by selling their milk. But by making cheese from it, some were able to sell their product at artisan cheese market prices rather than fluctuating milk market prices, which are dictated by stocks and government oversight. There were some people who didn’t even own farms that began making cheese to support dairy families and independent farms in their community by buying their milk. Fermenting milk became a way to keep farming communities alive, and more dairies every day consider turning their milk into cheese, to battle the constantly fluctuating milk market prices.
For others, making cheese is a means to live outside of the prevailing socioeconomic norm where larger farms (most selling heavily government-subsidized soy or corn) can have a much better chance at making a living while smaller farms constantly struggle. Growing what you want, and how you want, is difficult when you have to compete with heavily subsidized products in the marketplace. Cheese can provide security. Producing it on the side can help farmers build a financial cushion—so they can grow that buckwheat they’re really passionate about, or afford to keep the animals they adore. That extra cheese money just might allow them to have the animals they like, or grow what they want, how they want to grow it, on their farm.
Then there are people who love making cheese because it’s a beautiful creative outlet. Cheese nourishes, brings communities together, and allows people to farm the way they want, but it is also an art form. Although making cheese is hard labor, it is a craft that brings pleasure to both its creators and its admirers. Sometimes the rinds alone take one’s breath away. Brainy, wrinkly, ashy, smooth, waxed, covered in cocoa nibs or espresso or tiny divets, they show a loving touch like a cut of fabric on a quilt does. In some ways, cheese’s beauty—an already pleasing exterior giving way to layers of texture and flavor within—serves as a metaphor for its variegated reach and role in our lives.
Perhaps everyone’s eyes don’t light up yet when they hear I work with cheese for a living. Maybe they haven’t yet met the right cheesemonger, one who will inspire their dairy desires, or their passion has not yet ignited by knowing that they’re consuming a product that has provided beauty, focus and shape to so many lives and communities. But I have faith that they will. The cheese bug can bite when it’s least expected, and it’s hard to resist such a delicious force when its effect is so sweet.