Food is symbolically significant. We eat not merely to live, but to become particular sorts of persons. Middle-class American consumers, for example, may be willing, on occasion, to pay upwards of thirty dollars per pound for artisanally made and aged cheese (and cheesemakers can dream of making a living from crafting it) because they are not buying merely a source of nutrition or sustenance for that kind of money. They are buying the adventure and pleasure of unique taste, the status of connoisseurship, or the virtue of supporting a local business or the waning institution of small-scale dairy farming. As anthropologists have long argued, the value people derive from consuming food endlessly exceeds quantitative measures, whether in kilocalories and grams, or in dollars and cents.
The same can be said of producing food. While artisanal cheese undoubtedly generates gustatory pleasure and cultural capital for those who consume it, this essay explores the values that making cheese generates for those who produce it for commercial sale. At the centre of those values lies pleasure, although it is not unalloyed.
At the beginning of the millennium, I began noticing in New York City European-style cheeses, carefully aged to form natural rinds and often made from unpasteurised milk, and that had been handcrafted in the United States. These cheeses hadn’t existed when I was growing up in the 1970s. Where did they come from? Who was making them? What sort of life did artisanship afford in today’s United States? My curiosity developed into a multi-year ethnographic research project that resulted in the 2013 publication of a book, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (University of California Press).
In the early 1980s, a few former hippie homesteaders sold cheese through food co-ops and to local restaurants
From visiting, observing, working alongside, and interviewing cheesemakers across the United States, I came to realize that the lives and livelihoods of the people who make cheese artisanally are as various — as unstandardized — as is the “life” of cheese itself. Most did not go into commercial cheesemaking for the love of cheese; they took up cheesemaking as a means to other ends — indeed, other loves and pleasures.
Beginning in the early 1980s, a few former hippie homesteaders who had raised goats and made fresh cheese as part of the back-to-the-land movement licensed their dairies to sell cheese through food co-ops and to local restaurants. For them, cheesemaking offered a modest income that helped defray the cost of keeping goats, which they came to love for their companionship and personality. Although goats are the most common livestock objects of affection, in Vermont, David and Cindy Major turned to cheese as a means of earning a living from the flock of sheep that David’s family had kept for two decades as pets and as a source of meat and wool. After 15 years, David’s favourite part of the entire farmstead cheesemaking enterprise remained “making pasture” — being outdoors on the hilly meadows with his sheep, moving plastic fencing to provide the sheep with fresh grasses to nibble after each milking. This sort of pastoral care may well enhance the flavour quality of his Vermont Shepherd cheese, but first and foremost, it’s the life David loves.
While the first wave of Americans to return cheesemaking to dairy farms identified as farmers, orienting themselves to the land and valuing the self-sufficiency of their rural lifestyle, subsequent decades have seen a rise in cheesemakers who identify first as creative artisans. Greg Bernhardt told an audience at the 2007 American Cheese Society meetings that he and his wife, Hannah Sessions, set out in establishing their Blue Ledge Farm to pursue goals that were not “just about farming but about life. We went into this wanting to do something creative with our life, something interesting. We didn’t want to ship milk [to a processing plant]. . . Creating cheese, we felt like, would be interesting.” Artisans make decisions about aesthetic design and dictate production process. Theirs is an engaged, not alienated, manual labour.
Magic is a word that cheesemakers often use
Many cheesemakers derive primary satisfaction from the creative, tactile, even sensual experience of transubstantiating fluid milk into a seemingly infinite variety of cheeses. A cheesemaker in New York State said to me:
"My single favourite part of the cheese-making process is stirring curd. I love to do that. I put on a skimpy tank top, so I can go up to here [indicating her upper arm] in the curd. I just love it. Sheep’s milk makes really dense, soapy curd. And it’s like folding in egg whites. You have to be really gentle in the beginning, and you really get a sense how the curd changes as the temperature rises and as the whey gets expelled from it. It’s just a great learning experience, to get to do that. But you can’t be doing anything else while you’re doing that, so for the twenty minutes or forty minutes while you’re doing it, that’s it. I find it sort of therapeutic. You know, I can’t answer the phone..."
A former executive manager who makes cheese on her Wisconsin farm said appreciatively of the engaged focus the work demands, “It makes you lose your senses, your common senses.” Another cheesemaker likens making cheese to running a marathon: “an adrenaline builds up, you have to be constantly aware of time.” The pressure of this, she added, heads off the boredom that the seemingly repetitive labour might inspire. Both women described getting a rush from the “flow” of engaged consciousness and focused attention that cheesemaking demands. Here, the pleasure of food lies not so much in eating it as in making it.
Magic is a word that cheesemakers use to speak to the sense of wonder that they experience in bearing witness to the transubstantiation of fluid milk into cheese. Heat some milk, add a little of this, a pinch of that, stir it around, let it sit — “and the magic [of curdling] happens.” A cheesemaker in California told me:
"My definition of artisanal would be loving attention to detail. I think that when you oversee every step of the production, that’s when love develops. I sometimes talk about making love to the cheese because as you’re sitting there with your arm in the vat, bringing it [the curd] up [from the whey]—I’m a photographer and I used to do professional photography—and developing the image in the dark room is similar to watching the cheese curdle and the curds of cheese emerging from this soup of whey."
In responding to the “magic” of curdling and fermentation, the craft knowledge of cheesemaking encompasses the challenge of problem solving. As a cheesemaker with more than a dozen years’ experience explained:
"I like solving problems and … rescuing cheese. … Any cheesemaker’s going to tell you that none of it just happens by itself, that … the most subtle variations of everything that goes into it, from the milk to the weather… are going to make your cheese different. So you expect the cheese is going to— it wants to be different all the time, and you’re fighting that, against the perfect cheese you’re trying to produce. So that’s where the cheesemaker steps in and says, 'I’m going do this a little bit differently today. I’m going to try to compensate for something I see happening.' … You try to make an adjustment and try to bring [back] a cheese that you feel is running away from you, getting outside of the parameters that you’re trying to look for, and I love doing that."