Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization

Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western CivilizationCheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization by Paul Kindstedt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wisconsin is famous for a few things: Beer, brats, Green Bay Packers, the birthplace of Dungeons & Dragons, UW Badgers, Happy Days and, most of all, CHEESE! I'm a transplant to Wisconsin, having moved here in 1996 for graduate school. We love it here. We raised our children here. I became a cheese snob here.

So when I saw Cheese and Culture at the local library, I knew that I had to read it.

To say it wasn't the most fun of reads is an understatement.

You see, I have a Master's degree in History from University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is known for it's academic rigor in the field of history. I take my history books pretty seriously. I expect a lot. Maybe I expected too much.

After all, the first 147 pages were a series of tenuous connections between economic development and the role that cheese played in that development. But, really, the historical and archaeological sources related to cheese up until the 9th-century A.D. are quite scant. There is a lot of supposition with very little evidence for over half the book. I don't know that it could be helped, but the fact that the work went on and on with stretched speculation didn't give me much confidence that the book would end well.

Thankfully, on page 148, the author, Paul S. Kindstedt, hit his stride. There, the recruitment of new settlers to the Lake Lucerne area by Monks at the Abbey of St. Martin at Muri, heralds the first instance (in this book, at least) of culture and cheese directly affecting each other in a clearly-documented way. Peasants were given incentives, such as farming implements, some livestock, and seeds, to develop the area surrounding the Abbey. In exchange, the settlers were required to pay tithes and work the land around the Abbey. Tithing records show that tithes were often paid with cheese and wool. The settlers gathered themselves and governed themselves by rules set around the production and exchange of these commodities.

From here on out, Kindstedt's research is solid. He traces the development of various artisan cheeses throughout Europe and the later industrialization of cheese production, particularly in England and the United States. After the rise of "factory" cheese through the mid-nineteenth through most of the twentieth-centuries, artisan cheeses made a comeback, starting in the 1970s. This artisan movement is particularly strong here in Wisconsin, where local farms make highly-distinctive cheeses in low volume, which, of course, means that it is more expensive than factory cheese. For a variety of legal and historical reasons, the two "arms" of the cheese industry (artisan and factory) have come to loggerheads in the international courtrooms, primarily over safety concerns about the use of "raw" (i.e., unpasteurized) cheese production. This is complicated by differing views on the exclusive use of place-names (such as "Roquefort") for cheese branding. Those countries that have retained a more artisinal bent (France, Spain, Italy, and Greece) argue for the exclusive use of such cheese names as Roquefort and Parmigiano-Reggiano, while those that developed industrialized cheese making (England, the Netherlands, and Denmark) argue that some cheeses whose names originated as place-names, such as Cheddar and Gouda, are so ubiquitous as to make it impossible to monitor their use. The United States seems to fall into the latter camp, as well (can you imagine having to rename all brands of Cheddar cheese as, for instance, "Wisconsin Gold" or "Vermont Delight"?).

The book ends, as many good history books do, with a question that is much bigger than the subject of the cheese industry. The question is this: with the slow, ongoing change in public opinion from the "least cost model" of food production to a more varied, localized, and environmentally-friendly paradigm, who gets to pay the cost? The switch from least-cost processing and production to more specialized methods costs money. If the consumer pays the cost, without the benefit of government subsidy, does this create a sort of class-based cheese consumption reality? Note that this isn't just about cheese - the rise in the demand for organic foods in general has not been fast enough to outpace the rising cost of these foods. The balance of supply versus demand just hasn't "swung" yet. At the moment, there is a growing divide between "haves" and "have-nots". Those who want more healthy foods must pay the price. Those who cannot afford to pay the price don't have access to the more healthy foods, with long-term consequences for society in general (mainly through the public costs of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease). The further question that Kindstedt implies, but does not broach directly, is this: Should the government subsidize the costs of healthy foods in order to reduce long-term medical costs that affect the taxpayer?

Though the book is a bit of a slog, and not particularly entertaining, I still learned a great deal about the interface between economic history and cheese production. I have a problem with the title - the issue of "culture" is not addressed particularly well. "Cheese and economy" might have been a better title. If the first 147 pages were pared down to, say, 50 pages or so, this would have been much more enjoyable. You need some of the background information given in the first sections, but definitely not all of it. From there on out, though, as the author constructs his arguments from the dark ages on, the historiography becomes tighter, the arguments more clearly-stated and cogent, and the narrative becomes much more interesting.

It could have been better had the editor let it age a bit more. Still, Cheese and Culture has a memorable flavor, not too sweet, not too bitter, but just a touch too bland.

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Addendum: Interestingly, in this month's issue of Discover magazine (I'm a subscriber), there is a little article on "Extremely Aged Cheese" in which it is reported that organic geochemist Richard Evershed has done a forensic analysis of 7,000 year old hole-riddled pottery shards from Poland and determined that some milk-derived product had been contained in them. They're not certain it was cheese, but the cheese making process involved straining rennet-coagulated milk and separating the cheese curds from liquid whey, which makes for pretty good indirect evidence that cheese was being made back around 5,000 BC.

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