by Nora Boydston
Cheese is an ancient and sacred food. Even so, its status has diminished over the years in American cuisine.
Due to low quality and mass production, cheese has gotten a bad name, become a junk food. The message of a recent and troubling ad campaign from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine was cheese makes you fat; cheese is bad.
When Americans think of cheese they may imagine those floppy orange squares, or the stringy white globs atop mass-produced pizzas. What they may not realize, however, is that many of these products do not legally qualify as cheese. Instead, they are labeled processed cheese food. Some pizza cheese, used on pizza pies around the nation has been so altered from its original form that it can longer be called mozzarella.
With this in mind, it makes sense that most people, myself included, are unaware of cheese’s role as a sacred and revered commodity in the ancient world: a major component of religious ceremonies as a bloodless sacrifice offered to the gods, as well as an important staple in the daily diet of common people.
Today we have a cheese dichotomy. On one end of the spectrum is handmade artisan cheeses selling for upwards of forty dollars a pound, and on the other end cheap, factory-made, pre-shredded cheddar enjoyed by the masses in their grilled cheese sandwiches and quesadillas.
Ten years ago Paul Kindstedt, professor at Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, took a sabbatical to write his first book, American Farmstead Cheese, as a resource of cheese science for a new generation of cheese makers. He quickly realized that it was impossible to fit cheese’s vast history into the introductory chapters and decided he had to write a second book. That project later became Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its place in Western Civilization, out this April from Chelsea Green Publishing.
Cheese and Culture is a comprehensive survey of the long and fascinating history of cheese. The cover is lush and inviting, featuring a Flemish painting of a gorgeous spread of cheeses. Perhaps the only thing that would make this book more delicious would have been a few mouthwatering photos of cheeses inside. Sadly, there are none, only a few informative charts, maps, and ancient cheese-making artifacts.
Cheese and Culture presents a concept that admittedly I’d never considered before: how a specific food has shaped, and been shaped by, cultural forces. If you’re like me and it’s been a few years since your last history class, Cheese and Culture acts as a refresher course in Western civilization, fascinatingly told through the lens of cheese. In his introduction, Kindstedt modestly states that he is a cheese scientist, not a historian, but the book is so thoroughly researched that I couldn’t help but marvel at the comprehensive amalgamation of historical facts.
With a writing style that is at once authoritative yet warm and approachable, Kindstedt systematically details how cheese has been culturally significant throughout human history beginning in Neolithic times with the domestication of animals. Soon after, once adults began to develop a tolerance for milk and milk products, cheese played a very important role in nearly every civilization in the Western world.
Kindstedt takes us on a sweeping journey from the great Mesopotamian cities to Hellenic Greece and the Roman Empire, up through Europe during the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution in America. Kindstedt approaches the potentially touchy subjects in the history of cheese such as the role of religion in society, political conflicts, and slavery, with an admirable graciousness and pragmatism.
Kindstedt closes the book by discussing the major issues in current cheese history, including the conflict between the European Union and the United States over Protected Designation of Origin status for cheeses and the current raw milk controversy. This proves that cheese still plays a major role in our society, albeit perhaps in a less obvious way than in the past.
Cheese and Culture has a wide appeal for anyone interested in food history, it’s not just for cheese nerds like me. You will get a general sense of the process of cheese making, but I personally would have enjoyed even more specific information about the technical side of how different cheeses are made. I guess this just means I will (happily) have to read Paul Kindstedt’s first book, American Farmstead Cheese to learn more.
Nora Boydston is the founder of CartwheelsForJustice.org and received her MFA in Fiction from The New School.