The Cheese Chronicles: A Journey Through the Making of Cheese in America, from Field to Farm to Table by Liz Thorpe

There comes a point early in The Cheese Chronicles: A Journey Through the Making of Cheese in America, from Field to Farm to Table when Liz Thorpe attempts to explain the book she wants to write to an old guard of the cheese business, a man referred to as “the Godfather” and who produces factory cheese on the West Coast.

… Ig asked me what this book was about anyhow.  I started to explain that, well, it was about my life in cheese and my observations and stories about American cheese in general.  Ig just sat there.  I assumed I needed to clarify.  “I don’t want to write another reference book,” I intoned.  “I want to contextualize this stuff we call American cheese and talk about the issues that matter.”  Silence.  Ig leaned farther back in his busted brown leather chair…

“… I figure you’ve been around since the 1920s.  Your father was in cheese.  And you might be the place for me to start to understand how cheese in this country developed.”

Blank.  Utterly impassive blankness.  As I was sitting there, the whole idea of a book about American cheese started to unravel, positively fall to bits in my lap.  This old-timer thought I was full of crap.  And the longer he sat and stared at me, the fuller of crap I became.  I could be wine tasting right now, I thought, or hanging out with other yuppie types who want to wax poetic about cheese.  I could be teaching starry-eyed servers at the French Laundry.  I could be scooting around San Francisco.  I could be absolutely anywhere except sitting on this stiff, sticky chair in this warm, still office, with an eighty-year-old guy who’s staring at me as if I were a many-legged caterpillar.

And then Ig barked, “Artisan cheese movement.  I coined that phrase.  And commodity cheese.  Up until 2006 we won more medals than anyone else.”  I started to think this interview might go somewhere.

Admittedly, there are other sections that might be more appealing to the general reader.   Not to worry.  This book is chock full of  anecdotes about the integrity of small scale cheese makers, the proper way to taste cheese, the importance of milk, and all that other good stuff.  As for writing, Thorpe get’s downright poetical when describing some of the handmade cheeses and family operations she’s come across (see my preview post ).  But for me the passage above was where The Cheese Chronicles distinguished itself from other foodie books fetishizing some niche product (be it wine, heirloom tomatoes, chocolate, whatever).  It sums up what makes The Cheese Chronicles special.  Which is that this book is all inclusive.  That means cheeses aged in caves and made using traditional French techniques are allowed to brush shoulders with the Cabot Farms blocks in the freezer case.  Liz Thorpe isn’t about money or status – she’s about good food.

Thorpe does a wonderful job conveying her passion for what is essentially moldy and coagulated milk, and somehow passes along that enthusiasm (along with the knowledge).  No small feat when dealing with the squeamish.  She takes  artisanal, farmstead, factory, commodity, and every other kind of cheese she comes across on equal terms.  She visits the Pennsylvania Amish expecting to find the beginnings of cheese making in America, only to learn (spoiler alert!) they’ve been making cheese for just 25 years.  A few chapters later she’s discussing the move towards mass produced “factory” cheese in California and why it made sense at the time.   She acknowledges the pros and the cons of mechanized production, pasteurized vs. raw milk, big vs. small cheese, grass (outdoor) vs. grain fed (indoor) herds of goats, sheep and cows.   She provides overviews of specific cheeses and cheesemakers.   The Cheese Chronicles is all over the cheese map, yet somehow always manages to be entertaining.  Thorpe has a really engaging style of writing, sorta’ the Sarah Vowell of cheese.  Which makes this a fast and easy reading.

Forgive me if I’m getting a little gushy… but I honestly love this book.

Thorpe approaches each incarnation of curds & whey with a distinct lack of elitism, which may  seem out of character for someone in her position in the foodie pantheon (2nd in command at NYC’s Murray’s Cheese with entree into some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country).  So why is she so egalitarian?  My guess is because Liz Thorpe gets it.  That no matter how much you romanticize the process, we’re still talking about cheese.  People make it, they eat it, they make a living  (or at least a valiant attempt at one) by selling it.  She understands that there is no niche market – everybody   eats cheese.  And knowing this, at one end of the spectrum she talks about her experiments in the best cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches.  At the other she’s discussing the introduction of the cheese course to posh Manhattan restaurants.  Everyone gets a little of what they want.

I really could go on about this book for another 4 posts, but I won’t be doing it justice.  My recommendation – go out and buy the book whether or not you think you’re interested in cheese.   Buy it despite the cover (which I’m sorry to say is pretty awful).  Or, download it onto your Kindle (you’ll still get the cover, but you don’t really have to look at it).   Even better, for the full experience go and buy it from Murray’s where it all started.   And when your done, find your way back to Bleeker Street and try to impress the guys behind the cheese counter with your list of cheeses.  I doubt it will work, but that’s not going to stop me from trying.

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