American Culture

Cheese and the meaning of life

We had a very nice Thanksgiving dinner at a Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge, and the grandkids were fantastic, contrary to earlier intimations. And we got to top it off with some fine pumpkin and pecan pies, after the cheese course. The cheese course had a pretty good selection—mostly Vermont cheeses of different types. What was disappointing was their blandness. Cheeses are supposed to complement a meal—these did not, sadly. Like much American food, it was the overall drabness, the lack of any particular flavor, that stood out.

As is my wont, I compare what I find in the US with what I find in Britain. Like much food we find in the US, there are few US cheeses of quality, and few kinds in general. Britain, on the other hand, is rolling in cheeses, and for many they have come to represent the resurgence in the production of local food in Britain that has occurred over the past twenty years or so. Matthew Fort has an interesting article in The Guardian today on Cornish Blue, a British cheese introduced only in 2001, winning the top prize at the World Cheese Awards. Even more striking, Britain has something like 700 cheeses now, made by both large and small farmers. France, by contrast, is reputed to have about 600.

Fort discusses some of the reasons why cheesemaking has seen a resurgence—farmers looking to diversify their product range from just milk or meat, the growth of a new peasantry (using the term in a good way) as urbanites move to more rural climes and take up small scale farming, cheesemakers expanding their product range as the market for good cheeses becomes larger. But Fort also makes another important point–the fact that in the UK, like many other European countries, still allows the manufacture of a broad range of cheeses from unpasteurized milk. This is in contrast with the US, where the manufacture of cheese from raw milk is severely constrained. In fact, in 1989 the UK government did consider the banning of cheeses made from raw milk—and was persuaded that the scientific case for doing so just didn’t support such a draconian move.

The US Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, takes a less forgiving view. All if this is because of a bacterium called listeria, which can cause a variety of infections that can make people feel unwell, or worse. In fact, listeria is everywhere, and we’re constantly exposed to it. But it can have very unpleasant effects on pregnant women, and can cause miscarriages. In extremely rare cases, it can cause fatalities.

But so can peanut butter, and we haven’t banned that yet. So what we have in the US is a government that couldn’t be bothered to regulate its financial industry—in fact, that went out of its way to deregulate it as much as possible—with catastrophic results, but that also seems to go out of its way to ensure that small cheese producers are constantly under the gun. Agribusiness must love this, of course. Why does the UK not do this? Because, as Mrs W has noted before, of that libertarian streak the British have, which leads them to think that, well, lets just make sure that people know the risks and leave it at that. The British government, in other words, expects people to be grown-ups about food, as it does about other things. Holes in the sidewalk, for example. If there’s a hole in the sidewalk, someone will put a little cone in it or something, and some one else will eventually getting around to filling it. In the interim, there’s an unwritten assumption that people won’t be foolish enough to actually step in the hole and hurt themselves. And if they do, it’s probably because they weren’t paying attention.

There’s a larger issue about food as well. Britain does have a farming crisis, and many countries do, and this is as true in dairy farming as any other kind. Dairy farmers have been leaving the business at a rate of 500 a year. In 1995, there were nearly 36,000 dairy farmers in Britain—today there are half that number. This is one reason why many have expanded into cheese production, in fact. But there is the constant pressure from supermarkets and consumers for that cheap pint of milk, as Martin Hickman recently pointed out in The Independent. But of course that cheap pint of milk is usually crap, not much better than that white stuff called “milk” in the US. So the overall trends are not positive. Still, British farmers have over the past twenty years managed to make themselves the cheesemaking capital of the world. And you can still find small herds of dairy cows producing extraordinary milk, even with the pressure for large mega-dairy farms.

Of course, you can get cheese in the US made from raw milk. But it needs to be aged 60 days at a controlled temperature. Cheese aficionados are appalled by this, because it’s the young cheeses where you find cheese doing all its wonderful taste things in all its majesty. In most of the world you can find unpasteurized cheeses of various ages, and people don’t seem to be dying like flies. Britain, for example, where pregnant women are advised to avoid soft cheeses during pregnancy, and it seems to work.

What US enforcement of agricultural regulations that does exist seems designed to benefit large agribusiness producers and companies. It’s long past time to review this whole process so that it becomes easier for small farmers to fund a sustainable source of income as artisan cheese manufacturers—or artisan beef farmers, or artisan yogurt producers, or whatever. We constantly hear about the farming crisis in Europe, and the mountain of butter, and all of the usual American myths about Europe’s flawed agricultural policies. And in many ways they are flawed. But they still sustain local agriculture in a way that is almost unimaginable in the US. At a time when real jobs are getting scarcer, let’s at least make it easier for people to go back to small farming, if that’s what they want to do. Right now, it seems like the US continues to go in the wrong direction. Schumacher knew what he was on to when he wrote Small is Beautiful. No one here seems to have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

Categories: American Culture, Food/Drink

Tagged as:

1 reply »