I’m currently about 50 pages into Heather Paxson’s fascinating new book, “The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America”, but can already strongly recommend it. Paxson, an anthropologist, takes an anthropologist’s approach to studying the world of cheese; living with the cheesemakers and farmers, observing their daily routines, bringing back in-depth and thoughtful reports from the field that delve into the economics, cultures, philosophies and technical practicalities of the cheesemaking process.
Although I can’t yet offer a detailed review, I can say, from what I’ve read, that anyone considering a jump into the world of cheesemaking should read this book; Paxson does a good job of revealing the economic and practical challenges (and they can be quite daunting) that any micro-creamery would face, and seeks to dispel some of the romanticism surrounding the idea of the pastoral rural life, that might attract, say, a city-dwelling office worker to give up economic security and stability in exchange for a life of cheesemaking (cough).
At the same time, she also explores how that mythology is so important to the relationship that the makers have with their customers; cheese is often sold with a story surrounding it, the creation myth of who the farmer is, what the farm and its animals lives are like, how the essence of the location of production find their way into the cheese. What might get lost, as we wax rhapsodic about the humble New England sheep or goat farm and their magical wheels of cheese are the economic realities of their life: some might have no health insurance, seven-day work weeks, razor-thin profit margins, while others make it work due to a second job, a family trust fund to draw on, or money earned in a previous life in corporate America.
The Scientific American blog, Oscillator has a review of the book that also delves into the worlds of terroir, microbial ecosystems, and the biologically symbiotic relationship between cheesemaker and cheese (read the full review here):
Anthropologist Heather Paxson’s new book…explores the microbiopolitics of cheese production and the macropolitics of culture, economics, and policy of artisanal foods. Through participant observation in small dairy farms in Vermont, Wisconsin, and California, Paxson highlights the work that goes into making and marketing handcrafted, artisanal cheese, a “post-pastoral” and “post-Pasteurian” product that blurs the boundaries between nature and culture, urban and rural, production and consumption, and “itself exemplifies cultured nature, the product of human skill working in concert with the natural agencies of bacteria, yeasts, and molds to transform a fluid made by ruminant animals.”
…Microbiologists and cheesemakers are increasingly interested in the microbial inhabitants of local environments and the unique communities that shape a place and its cheeses. Microbial terroir emphasizes the importance of the unique biological geography of a place, using the identity of microbes to craft an identity for a brand of cheese. While the microbial similarities of cheeses from different regions are often more striking than their differences (like the similarities between cheese and skin microbes), identifying cheeses through their bacteria is a fascinating way to get to know the microbes in our lives. Microbial knowledge can add to notions of healthfulness, like the probiotic Lactobacillus that curdles milk, or to the romantic image of a cheese, like the Brachybacterium Rachel Dutton found in the rind a Vermont cheese, “an unusual microbe that has been found in Arctic sea ice, on human skin, and in an Etruscan tomb.”
…uncovering the many complex practices of artisanal cheesemakers, both in cultivating microbes and cultivating a sense of place, shows that “‘nature’ as we know it is clearly a product of human activity,” that “industrial ecologies of cheese production are no more or less ‘natural’ than farmstead ecologies; they are differently cultured.” There is no single “right” way to produce food, no single ideal of “natural” food, but The Life of Cheese is one way to better understand that food is never just a thing to put in your mouth.
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