It’s the people’s cheese, an item on grocery lists everywhere every week. Cheddar makes the ooze in mac-and-cheese and the molten blanket on many a burger. But that’s the cheap stuff. The other Cheddar, made by hand in clothbound wheels, is cementing America’s reputation for craftsmanship.
Gordon Edgar’s new book, Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese (Chelsea Green Publishing), examines both ends of this cheesy spectrum and what happened when Cheddar production moved from farm to factory. Below, the longtime cheesemonger at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery shares more insights into America’s most popular cheese. I have edited Gordon’s comments for brevity and clarity.
Wisconsin, New York and Vermont have long histories with Cheddar, and you write about their recognizable styles. Why do you think California cheesemakers mostly ignored Cheddar?
One reason is Tillamook. It kind of had the West Coast market sewed up. And if you look at old promotional material for California cheese, it was “try our mild cheese.” Unlike in Vermont and other places, mild was a selling point in California. So the state never developed a distinctive taste. [Even today] there is not a lot of distinctive California Cheddar. Nobody is making nice clothbound Cheddar besides Fiscalini.
One of your key themes is how industrial Cheddar drove out small farm-based producers. But artisan Cheddar production is booming today. Are we at equilibrium now? If not, which way are we leaning?
From the retail cheesemonger perspective, more people are asking more questions, and there’s more interest in artisan cheese. So it’s swinging that way. But obviously, with all the FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) stuff, there’s the potential to push the pendulum back. [Edgar is referring to potential FDA regulations that cloud the future for raw-milk cheese and threaten other traditional cheesemaking practices.]
You write that “the story of Cheddar is the story of advances in technology.” Overall, would you say that technology has improved the quality of ordinary American Cheddar?
From the food safety point of view, things are improved. But after that it’s a mixed bag. Some technical improvements give you better-tasting, more consistent cheese but also kind of suck the life out of cheese and make it less interesting. Technical improvements combined with scale and efficiency—that combination is deadly in terms of interesting and flavorful cheese.
You write a lot about the commodification of Cheddar and the fact that a lot of American Cheddar today is “push button” cheese, never touched by human hands in the cheese plant. But do you see a legitimate place for this kind of cheese?
Cheddar has developed like the entire American food system has developed. The bottom line is: the most protein for the cheapest cost. And there’s a place for that cheese. People gotta eat. Rainbow Grocery is a big natural-foods coop, and in terms of weight, the most cheese we sell is Rumiano Mild Cheddar. It’s $4.99 a pound, and it’s always going to be the biggest seller because it’s cheap.
Between affordable Cheddar made in a factory—what you call “food for the people”—and expensive artisan Cheddar made on a farm, which one is your ideal?
My ideal is honestly somewhere in the middle. Small farmers should be able to make a living. That’s important to the country’s economy and to [maintaining] rural landscapes. But when people say “Americans need to spend more on food,” I see a lot of Americans who can’t afford to spend more on food.
I feel like the only real answer is on a policy level: either some kind of aid to smaller farmers in the form of tax breaks or student-loan write-offs or price supports. My goal is that there would be some way for dairy farmers making quality handmade cheese to survive. But how do we turn back 50-odd years of farm policy? Almost all of the government support for agriculture goes to large producers. That needs to be re-thought. But there’s probably a limit to how much we can change the rural economy by buying $30 a pound Cheddar.
Your desert-island Cheddars? Name two.
Montgomery is still the one. It’s amazing Cheddar. Also the Fiscalini Clothbound. It just really hits those dank, cellary, meaty, intense, minerally Cheddar notes. I’m also a huge fan of the new Grafton Queen of Quality. It’s a limited-edition Cheddar made with Spring Brook Farm Jersey milk and it’s phenomenal. In terms of block Cheddar, I just love that Widmer 2-year, and I’m partial to the Tillamook 2-year, too. But I’m out of stock on both right now. Something I actually have? I love the Prairie Breeze [from Milton Creamery] for sweet Cheddar.