Edgar, Gordon (2015) Cheddar. A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese and what is can tell us about our history, cultural identity, and food politics. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Reviewed by Ellen Messer (Tufts University)
If you ever wondered what’s to like about the dairy lubricant flavoring Mac&Cheese, or why there is so much noticeable variation in identifiably named, branded cheddars, this book has the answers. The lucid and sometimes witty text, crafted by San Francisco Rainbow Grocery Cooperative cheese-monger Gordon Edgar, unpacks the science, technology, arts, crafts, and cultural, economic, and political history behind cheddar, which was America’s favorite cheese (until pizza-mozzarella surpassed it!). The fourteen chapters cover the methodologies for producing this cheese, the enterprising individuals (in the case of NY, a married couple) who figured out how to mechanize what had originally been a “farmhouse” process, and the localities that hosted increasing numbers of cheese factories. It also traces the adulterations (skimmed milk cheese or vegetable-oil filled cheese) that ruined the U.S. superior quality cheddar export industry, which had previously dominated the original U.K. cheddar market, earlier undermined by the same problems. The book celebrates the recent resurgence of smaller-scale, exquisite American cheddars and industrialized aged cheddars expanding a quality niche in-between the artisanal and processed American cheese. Throughout, there is also attention to labor, gendered social organization of production, economics, and political–especially policy—issues. All are part of the story that makes cheddar “America’s most iconic cheese” and for delectable reading and eating-guidance for patriotic celebrations.
What distinguishes cheddar from other cheeses are the multiple milk-processing steps, which include, after “ripening the milk,” scalding, salting, milling, “cheddaring,” and finally aging. This labor-intensive farmhouse-cheese manufacturing process traditionally occupied the time and energy of housewives until ca. 1850, when Rome, NY household producers constructed the first cheese factory, based on observations of best practices across farmsteads. Because of the intensive labor, women especially welcomed the freedom to ship their milk to central creameries, where dairy cooperatives bulked and transformed milk into cheese. Significantly, in well-known large-scale, branded cheddars—including Cabot (in Vermont) and Hilmar (in California)—all production, processing, and marketing operations are still organized as non-profits or cooperatives, although some of these enterprises have become subsidiaries of large corporations, such as Dean Foods, as a result of mergers, acquisitions, and sales.
These economic histories of particular brands are chronicled alongside what can best be described as an autobiographical cheese memoir about tasting cheddars. Central chapters feature the state cheddar histories of Wisconsin, where cheese is a central theme of popular discussion and pride; New York, which boasts the origins of industrialized production, and which will engage readers interested in economic history of food and agriculture; and Vermont, where the author indulges in the lushest sensory descriptions of cheddars, although he was baffled by the rudeness and lack of cheese commitment of ordinary Vermonters, as contrasted with Wisconsin, where everyone he encountered loved to talk about cheese. He is careful to make his terminologies accessible, while not excluding technical terms for those interested in learning more about the cheese science and engineering. Happily, his findings regarding the expanding production and marketing of high-quality artisan cheddars hint at some contradictions in conventional understandings; for instance, that superb cheese ordinarily produced by more labor intensive methods can be scaled up, even though the blending of milks from multiple farms means that the end product loses the sense and sensibility of terroir (connection to particular grazing places).
For readers interested in sensory terminologies, each chapter also contains tastings, with descriptive vocabulary by an author who managed to combine the passions of his “day job” buying and selling cheese with his avocation, which is food writing. This writing is uneven, sometimes lyrical and sometimes technical, which goes with the territory. This includes detailed descriptions of the processing along with personal experiences of savoring the end products. For example, in his introduction to chapter 4, “What is Cheddar, anyway?” he writes, simply: “All cheese … is an attempt to intervene in the natural spoilage of milk” and “The rest of cheddar-making is also dedicated to this goal of creating an age able cheese without rotting.” He continues, informing, that cheddaring (named for the English town of Cheddar first noted for this type, in the 13th century) is the step that distinguishes cheddars from other categories. It separates curds from whey by piling up curds in slabs, which puts additional pressure on them to release the liquid whey, and also stretches the fat and protein chains. The reduced slabs are then milled and salted, which stops the fermentation process, and adds flavor and texture; and the resulting solids are packed into forms for ripening. In describing this technology, he intentionally “dumbs down” the language so that non-scientists (like himself) can understand it.
The language describing the resulting cheeses, by contrast, is full blown. The Queen of Quality cheddar made from Vermont Jersey cows, as a case in point, uses a full palate of technical sensory terms to represent the “deep” but “accessible” sensory experience of savoring this material, which was “dark yellow from the beta-carotene in the grasses and the Jersey milk” and delivered notes of “buttery, salty, grassy, mushroomy, dank, and celery.” A separate chapter dedicated to tasting curds contains evocative language about sensory impressions and labels. It also offers guidance for understanding why American cheddars seem to be sweeter than earlier or contemporary European cheddars: cheese makers, appealing to what they perceive to be American preferences, deliver a cocktail of microbes that ferment the cheese more quickly and produce more sweet notes. The reader also learns that, with the exception of Cabot cheddars, the label “sharp” has no standardized flavor meaning; it is unregulated, not based on taste-testing of cheese-blocks, and used expressly as a marketing term.
The author’s historical account extends also to public health and regulations. In the late 19th century, and then again in the late 20th century, cheese made from milk from cows fed brewers’ or distillers’ grains tasted “yeasty, bitey, and boozy.” These flavor notes were considered a defect or virtue depending on tasteful marketing for artisan cheese. During the period around World War I public-health concerns about milk as a carrier of tuberculosis and other infections caused a revolution in the dairy industry. Pressure mounted for mandatory pasteurization, which could eliminate these disease threats. The resulting industry concentration, to accommodate the new science and technology, sparked the evolution of big brands like Borden and Kraft, and also encouraged the market for processed cheese. Kraft Velveeta, as a case in point, met industry desires for efficiency, yield, and flavor standardization as well as food safety, and technological aim for a product “that would last longer without spoilage, would be healthy (even if vitamins would start to be added as nutrition was lost in the process), and would feed people more cheaply.” American know-how and efficiency was captured in its iconic naming—American cheese: “Factory food—safe and designed with nutrition in mind—was America’s contribution to the world.” The author notes that from the consumer’s perspective, Velveeta, the heavily advertised scientific and technological wonder food, was comfortably satisfying, nutritionally balanced, and would not rot! It also melted and blended well with other flavors and ingredients—hence its preferred role in mac-and-cheese or Mexican Nacho dips.
All this combined food-safety, economic rationale, and industry concentration had come at the expense of much smaller-scale production, which valued flavor and not standardization. Ultimately, ca. 1990, American cheese makers and tastes began to return to appreciation of flavor and “place” as values. Such turns were partly nostalgia, but also show entrepreneurial spirit, and Americans’ newfound desire to connect to the land and support small farmers. This history once again favored women, who had originally been in charge of household production; then displaced by males who took charge of factories; but who achieved renewed prominence in emergent artisan cheese businesses.
As a coop devotee and employee, the author also marvels at the community spirit that he encounters even in large dairy coops, like California’s Tillamook, whose cheddar and labor relations he finds—or defines— as iconic American. Importantly, while recounting continual changes in food safety and technologies, he firmly rails against food-safety regulations developed to protect consumers and workers from the ills of large industrialized operations, without thought for careful, smaller operators, with their more limited capacities to comply, or the flavors they value.
The takeaway: like the American people, cheddar is one and many, an ever changing range of types that respond to new science, technology, economics, and marketing opportunities and demands. Like Jasper Hill’s Independence Day banner, “Freedom, Unity, and Cheese” it exemplifies all-American values. If you’re curious like me, visit your favorite supermarket and buy a half dozen cheddars, invite over some friends, and sample them with reference to his tasting terms, as you try to communicate which and why you prefer one over another.