I just recently got around to reading “Cheddar: A Journey To The Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.”
“Cheddar” was one of the most anticipated cheese books published in 2015. It is the follow-up to Gordon Edgar’s acclaimed “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge,” which was published in 2010. Edgar is a cheesemonger and the buyer at the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco.
One of the great things about Edgar’s writing is that he is comfortable with and honest about where he is coming from. This helps him balance his writing so that it never becomes too preachy. While he is steeped in leftist punk rock and political activist culture of the kind you would imagine in the San Francisco Bay area, his writing strikes a pragmatic attitude that is obviously still revolutionary in nature but unpretentious enough for those readers who may not be cut from the same cloth.
“Cheddar” is half road trip narrative and half historical examination. Edgar chronicles a series of road trips that he took to find out how cheddar became such an important cheese in the U.S., and he reveals how some of his assumptions about cheddar were challenged as he delved deep into its history.
Edgar finds himself in Wisconsin, Vermont, New York and his home state of California hot on the trail of weird cheese-related roadside attractions, companies, and the people who make cheddar happen.
He tells the story of how a primarily farmhouse cheese originally from England went from being made almost exclusively by farmers’ wives to a factory-standardized cheese with little resemblance of what it used to be in a relatively short period of time. This transformation, brought about by the technological explosion of the Industrial Revolution, in many cases made cheddar better in the sense that it helped create a cheese that was much more consistent in many aspects. A cheese made in a factory had more consistent flavor, texture and safety. This was not the case when it came to the farmhouse cheeses that dominated the scene before.
With the new technology, the U.S. found itself exporting 150 million pounds of cheese to the U.K. in 1881. Most of this was cheddar. But, as Edgar points out, it did not last long. By the turn of the century, cheddar exports dropped off to almost nothing. The problem? “Filled cheese” and “butter skimmers”.
Filled cheese is “cheese” made by replacing milk fat with vegetable oil and butter skimming is exactly what it sounds like. The cheese makers would skim much of the cream from the milk to make butter and then make the cheese with the skimmed milk. Butter was a quicker turn around than cheese. But while this is normal for many great traditional cheeses (Gruyere, Emmenthaler, Parmigiano), it is not a good practice for making cheddar.
America soon became known for this subpar cheese and it would not recover its reputation until its artisan cheese revolution began in the 1980s. Edgar takes the reader through this dark age of American cheese. He discusses the climate and culture that led to things like processed cheese and the death and resurrection of traditional bandage-wrapped cheddar.
Edgar speaks to some of the issues that plague the American cheese scene since the Progressive era. One of the main themes that seems to come up again and again is the consolidation of large corporations and their effect on cheese in the U.S. As a business begins to grow, it seeks to eliminate competition in many ways. One of those ways is to wield political power to shut the door on any new competitor.
At the end of “Cheddar,” I would have loved a little more about the relationship between the federal government, large corporations and regulation. How do we create more competition in the cheese industry? Do we look for more favorable regulation for the small cheesemakers or do we push for less regulation? Would less regulation create a boom in artisan cheesemaking much like the craft beer industry has seen in the past few years? These are all questions that one will have to research on their own. But “Cheddar” shines a light to introduce the reader to the issues facing our food industries today. With open eyes we can begin to understand and comprehend the challenges we face.
There are a few Missouri connections in “Cheddar” that we can be proud of as well. It is not all just Wisconsin and Vermont when it comes to cheddar. Edgar includes some of our favorite local cheeses in his writings and an extensive interview with St. Louis-based cheese consultant Neville McNaughton.
Edgar has nothing but good things to say about Flory’s Truckle. If you come into The Better Cheddar often we probably have recommended this raw milk farmhouse cheddar from Jamesport, Mo. to you. Turns out it makes its way regularly to Edgar’s cheese counter in San Francisco.
Edgar also gives a shout out to some of the “top goat cheeses in the country” from none other then Baetje Farm in Bloomsdale, Mo. He specifically mentions Miette. Come see us for a taste if you have never tried it. It’s great!
His conversation with McNaughton really sheds a light on the differences between traditional English Farmhouse Cheddar and the new-school American cheddars. McNaughton has had a hand in developing many of the cheddars that we love at The Better Cheddar. He describes how his choice of cultures leads to a crystalline texture and a sweet finish that really appeals to the American palate. Try Flory’s Truckle, Prairie Breeze or Cotton Wood River Cheddar for good examples. English cheddars are more savory, earthy and sharp.
“Cheddar” is a great read for anyone. There is some inside baseball but Edgar really brings the information down to earth and it is always fun to see the curtains pulled back to see the inner workings of one of the coolest jobs in the world. Read it today — with a side of cheese, of course.
Lincoln Broadbooks loves cheese. He is one of the first cheesemongers in the United States and Canada to become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. He is the manager and buyer for The Better Cheddar in Prairie Village. You can find him on Twitter @LincolnBbooks and on Instagram @lincycheese.