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.

It’s Wednesday! What Am I Reading?

O.K. I’m a day late posting Monday’s meme, for which I apologize… but doesn’t the saying go: better late than never?

With three books in the queue to post reviews for this week, I’m behind in more ways than one. My review of The Cheese Chronicles by Liz Thorpe will be up by tomorrow morning (yes, I know you’ve heard that before).   I enjoyed it very much.  I promise the review will be worth the wait.

Next is The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr, a Sherlock Holmes mystery that I downloaded to my ipod last week. I’ve noticed the reviews on Amazon and Audibles gave this a bad rap, which in my opinion is completely unearned (and I’ll be happy to tell you why in a couple of days!)

Last is The Sartorialist which, if you haven’t heard about this book yet, you really need to check out the blog before reading the review. Here is a link.

And what AM I reading this week? It’s time to get back to Byatt. I’ve been slowly working my way through The Children’s Book – not because of lack of enjoyment. Just lack of time. Byatt is one of those authors I feel merits, really demands, her readers full attention for uninterrupted blocks of time.

(By the by – I’m playing with the new WordPress/Blackberry beta for this post. It’s my first time, so be kind! I’ll spiff it up later today).

It’s Monday…here’s what I’m reading! The Cheese Chronicles by Liz Thorpe

It’s Monday!  What are you reading? (thanks to J. Kaye for what’s fast becoming my favorite weekly meme!)

Several years ago I attended a dinner party, the highlight of which was a beer and wine pairing that came at the end.  The host worked for an imported beer distributor.  The cheese had come from a local cheese maker.  The results were truly amazing.  I still have to wipe away a bit of drool when thinking about it.

I only wish I’d had a copy of the book I’m currently reading, The Cheese Chronicles:  A Journey Through the Making & Selling of Cheese in America, From Field to Farm to Table by Liz Thorpe.  A friend recommended it and I’m hoping to have the review up in the next few days.  So far it’s been a fascinating read – through her work at a prestigious NYC cheese shop the author got in at the ground floor of artisanal cheesemaking in America.  Simply put, Liz Thorpe knows cheese.  Plus she writes well, which means her book is entertaining as well as educational.  If only it didn’t make me so hungry!

Here’s a little teaser to whet your appetites:

…The sheep are milked from May until the end of September or beginning of October, and the cheeses age in the Falks’ open-air cave.  There are eight lakes within two miles of the farm, and the unusually high atmospheric moisture creates a phenomenon known as “toolie fog.”  From the marshes with their abundant cattails comes a low fog that hangs just above your feet.  It’s ground fog, slow and creeping, and though the pastures are clear through hot days and cold nights, the toolie fog seeps off the ponds and lakes, permeating LoveTree’s caves and carrying the aromatics of the region.  Mary accentuates this terroir by layering her cheese with cedar boughs and sumac, nestling and wrapping the various cheese in leaves that stew in the cool, damp wafts of toolie fog.

That’s the cheese I’d expect to be served at the Brontë ‘s table.

If you’re up in Hardwick, Vermont, Ms. Thorpe will be speaking at The Galaxy Bookshop this Tuesday, August 25th between 7-8PM.

And please watch this space for my full review later in the week.