New American Cheese - Ten Years Later
I remember that brisk winter day in 1999 as if it were yesterday. The crystal blue sky dazzled as I made my way north across the Golden Gate Bridge and west through the forest of towering redwoods. I was headed to the tiny coastal town of Point Reyes Station and to the renovated barn that was home to a fledgling cheese operation called Cowgirl Creamery. Co-owner Sue Conley had graciously agreed to let me observe their cheesemaking as part of my research for a book I was writing on American cheese. It was a subject for which I had passion, but no real expertise.
At the time, the only type of American cheese most people knew about was the orange, presliced kind that was scorned more than savored, especially by food sophisticates. When I told people I was writing a book on American cheese, many would ask, incredulously, “What’s to write about?” Without hesitation I’d respond: “A lot.”
I was a new traveler on the American cheese road, yet when I look back, my early experiences had led me right to it. After college, I lived in Bakersfield, California—the southern gateway to California’s agricultural region—where I developed a deep affection for the land and the people that worked it. A few years later I moved to San Francisco, where cheese was beginning to come of age (as it were), and my nascent passion became full-blown. I promptly turned from television news to food writing, and with that my adventures in the cheese world began.
One of the first was on that winter day at Cowgirl, where I was instructed to suit up before entering the cheesemaking room. Obediently I donned a hairnet and white lab coat, slipped on some oversize rubber boots, splashed through a sanitary solution, and stumbled into the pristine room where Conley worked her magic. Before me was a small vat filled with milk; nearby were plastic containers weeping whey from all sides, evidence of cheesemaking that had occurred earlier that morning. I watched Conley as she made cottage cheese and bandied about phrases like “lactic fermentation” and “set time.” I took notes all the while but really had no idea what I was writing. Just like most other Americans, I knew nothing about how cheese was made.
After asking Conley a zillion questions, I moved on to Bellwether Farms in Petaluma. It was there that I got a lesson firsthand in the monetary value of milk—the hard way. The milk for cheesemaker Liam Callahan’s prized cheese, Crescenza, was ripening in buckets lined up in the cheesemaking area. When it came time to add the rennet, he dutifully went from bucket to bucket dropping in the precise dose needed to set the curd. Unfortunately, because I was distracting him with questions along the way, Callahan accidentally skipped one of the buckets. Ten gallons of milk were now destined for the drain. Never before—and thankfully never since—have I seen someone cry over spilled milk. One year and no mishaps later, I published my first book, The New American Cheese. But with it, I discovered my work had only just begun: I still had to persuade people that American cheese was attention-worthy. It wasn’t easy.
I recall, for instance, wandering into a San Francisco cheese shop to peruse its selection. Out of about 200 cheeses, only two were American. I asked the shop manager why that was, and she answered with great disdain, “Because most American cheese is terrible.” I could not convince her otherwise.
Now, a decade later, I am amazed and thrilled about the evolution of American cheese and the enthusiasm for it that pervades our culture. My bookshelf alone provides indisputable proof of this: in 1999, I owned fewer than ten books on the subject; today that same bookshelf overflows with 70 books on cheese (not to mention copies of this magazine, the first consumer publication dedicated to cheese).
The proliferation of independent cheese shops is more proof that good cheese is here to stay. When my book was published, most states did not boast a single stand-alone cheese shop. Now, nearly every state has at least one and many have several. And there’s Whole Foods too, which single-handedly brought cheese to the masses by offering an honest-to-goodness cheese counter in each of its 279 stores.
There are other measures of our collective cheese fever, but the most satisfying one for me happens whenever I utter the phrase “American cheese”; now people welcome it with enthusiasm, not skepticism. They know that the new American cheese is exactly the cheese they want to eat. And so do I—only now I savor our cheese with a nod to its past and a wink to its unstoppable future. c
Written by Laura Werlin
Illustration by Eric Piatkowski