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A craft with soul
14
Mai
2014
Heather Paxson
The art of cheesemaking involves economies of sentiment: personal values and the pleasure derived from the process are what give a product outstanding quality. Yet market conditions are not always compatible with the joys of the craft.

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."

Economics was not our priority, unfortunately

Making cheese well, consistently, batch after batch, season after season, is difficult. Cheesemakers

deservedly derive personal satisfaction from working toward perfecting their art. And yet, their satisfaction in a job done well is augmented by the fact that what they are creating is food that will be consumed — tasted, eaten, enjoyed, incorporated — by others. Listen to this third-generation cheesemaker describe the satisfaction of hand-stretching balls of fresh mozzarella:

"I really enjoy making cheese. You learn a lot through making mistakes, and sometimes you agonize over why something’s not coming out right or consistent. And when you solve it, it really means a lot. When you figure it out and you really work hard—you put your heart into it. Everybody that makes cheese wants it to be the best, not only for themselves but for other people. . . . When you put a piece of cheese down, you put a piece of yourself down."

Regardless of where their passion lies, artisan food producers invest their own labour with the potential to satisfy the question of how to live a good life, personally meaningful and socially worthwhile. Nonetheless, the realisation of personal values depends upon generating market values — on selling cheese. As one cheesemaker put it in an interview, “if you can’t survive” as a business “then it’s all sort of out the window.” Beyond business sustainability, at stake in business-related decisions is what kind of artisan, parent, neighbour, and business owner these food producers are and might become. It is one thing to figure out an economic calculus for business growth and profit, but as another cheesemaker put it to me, “if it puts distance or borders between you and your children and your partner—your wife or husband—then what’s the point?”

As a profit-oriented enterprise catering to local and/or extra-local markets, and also a household-based enterprise comprising affective, mutual relations, the commercial practice of artisanal cheesemaking engages what I call economies of sentiment. Artisan food-makers confront tensions in working to realize personal and economic values simultaneously.

“Scaling up” a business is viewed as an absolute good in market capitalism — it’s the whole point of industrialisation. Artisan businesses, however, perceive a threshold when it comes to growth. As Mark, a farmstead cheesemaker in Vermont, explained to me, “There’s a certain volume you can truly get in farmstead production, a limited volume, because of the amount of work to do with both animals and the cheesemaking. To get beyond that point you have to start hiring people, and once you start hiring people you move away from the actual work itself and become more of an administrator.” When Mark and his wife moved to Vermont from New York City to raise a family, they got into sheep dairying and cheesemaking as a creative endeavour, a sort of rural counterpart to the arts world they left in the city. “Economics was not our priority, unfortunately. It was cheesemaking and the elusive mystery of cheesemaking. Which we’re getting satisfaction from, but we still… I don’t know.” Mark hesitated. “We’re not making enough money. So if we don’t make more money, we won’t have the mystery of cheesemaking!” Scaling up, as Mark suggested, may mean hiring employees — but this runs the risk of becoming a manager, finding yourself sitting in an office all day overseeing other people who are out in your barn, or with their arms to their elbows in sweet-smelling curd. Mark described a sort of catch-22:

"I think realistically, we should be able to pay the bills and afford to go out once in awhile . . . and put a little bit in savings. That’s the goal. But let me make it clear, we also hear people say, 'This is really great cheese; what do you do to turn this into making a lot of money?' And the answer is, 'You don’t!' You put yourself in that mind-set, then it’s really ramping up on manufacturing and distribution and travel—all kinds of things that defeat the purpose of what you wanted to do in the first place!"

It’s good to have that interest, because that makes your product going to be that much more interesting.

In her 1980s study of farm life in Georgia, Peggy Barlett identified “agrarian values” that farmers explicitly contrasted with “industrial values” of material gain, including “freedom from supervision, flexibility of work pace, and daily independence from supervision”— these sentiments are echoed today by former white-collar professionals, from lawyers to dental hygienists, seeking a more satisfying life through crafting cheese.*

 How might artisan enterprises grow big enough to be economically viable, without undermining the sentiments and lifestyle that inspired people to take up cheesemaking in the first place?

One strategy, employed by about a quarter of farmstead cheesemakers, is to buy other farmers’ milk to supplement their own farm’s production. However, for some this practice undermines the value of self-sufficiency that farmstead production is said to embody. Buying milk also introduces the moral calculation of how much a farmer, who well knows how difficult it is to sustain a small farm through selling fluid milk, will pay for someone else’s milk. In 2007, Laini Fondiller in northern Vermont paid her friend and neighbour who was “having hard times” thirty-eight dollars per hundredweight for his cow’s milk, well over the going commodity price, commenting, “I’ve been there, so I know what it’s like to be freakin’ broke!” Her business, she acknowledged, is “allowing him to stay alive” in farming — and this, in turn, enhances the pleasure she derives from making and selling her own cheese.

Rather than pursue business growth and profit for its own sake, cheesemakers describe a calculus of sufficiency: how big is big enough to sustain what they love doing without undermining that pleasure? Seeking pleasure in the process more than the profit of production may be considered a defining feature of artisanship. Mark, who was quite open with me about his financial worries, acknowledged a virtue in not being as focused as he might have been on the economic bottom line: it leads him to make a better product. “I think it’s good, good to have that interest” — in “the mystery” of cheesemaking, as he had put it — “because that makes your product going to be that much more interesting and most likely a better product.”

Mystery, magic, creativity, sensuality — the personal pleasures that artisans derive from craft practice and that motivate people to employ obsolete technology to pursue a commercial craft in an industrial era — may not be readily apparent to consumers of artisanal foods. But they matter just the same; arguably to the material characteristics of artisan products, and undoubtedly to the future prospects of artisan manufacture itself.

1 Peggy F. Barlett, 1993, American Dreams, Rural Realities: Family Farms in Crisis. Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 79.
Heather Paxson

Anthropologist

Heather Paxson is an anthropologist and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she has taught since 2003. She is the author of two books, including The Life of Cheese.

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