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Stinky Cheese and Stinky Cheese

I just got done reading American Cheeses by Clark Wolf. It’s a book with a direct title – yes, a book about American Cheeses (The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmouse Cheese). About the best cheeses it may be, but it’s not the best way for people interested in cheese to find out about the best cheeses America has to offer.

The book begins with disorganized ramblings, only to emerge into incomplete unnecessaries – not the best taste experience.

Clark Wolf’s introduction to American cheeses fails to meaningfully describe the dimensions of experience we should expect. There is no convincing argument in his writing in favor of American cheeses instead of foreign cheeses, regional cheeses instead of cheeses unassociated with any location, or for artisan cheeses instead of cheeses made by large cheese companies. Neither does Wolf provide enough information to readers to understand what distinguishes one kind of cheese from another, either in creation or in consumption.

For example, Wolf tells us that there are: 1) soft and soft-ripened cheeses, 2) semi-soft cheeses, and 3) semi-firm and firm cheeses – but which cheeses are which, how do we tell the difference, and what do these distinctions mean in terms of how we should shop for and use cheese? Wolf never gets around to saying that. Wolf’s introduction skips superficially from one topic to another, never giving any topic adequate attention. If you don’t know much about cheese, you won’t learn it from this book.

american cheeses bookThen we get to what’s supposed to be the meat of the book: The descriptions of makers of quality cheesemakers in the United States. The problem is that this directory of sources of cheese will soon be out of date. People go in and out of business fairly quickly these days. Surely, some of the cheesemakers Wolf describes will still be in business 10 years from now, but I’d imagine that most of them will not be. Even for those who survive, the quality of cheese made will change.

Besides that, Wolf doesn’t bother to go into much useful detail about most of the cheesemakers he lists. The listing for Green Mountain Blue Cheese, for example, spends two pages talking mostly about the life story of the cheesmakers themselves, saying only the following about the actual cheese they make: “It’s a tall cylinder in the style of a Fourme d’Ambert: tart sweet, creamy, and a little nutty, like any good meal companion. Her namesake is Gor-Dawn-Zola, her personal take on the Italian classic.” Does that help you understand what kind of cheeses you can expect from Green Mountain Blue Cheese?

Want to find out more about American artisan cheesemakers? Search on line – you’ll find a lot more information than is available in Clark Wolf’s book.

In addition to the general uselessness of American Cheeses, there’s a dreary snooty tone in Wolf’s writing. Do you know offhand who Marion Cunningham, Ruth Reichl, and Alice Waters are, and why they should matter to you? I don’t, but Wolf drops their names as if they’re already familiar companions to the reader, without saying anything more about them.

Wolf manages even to make standard measurements pompous. When telling about how much milk an average goat produces per day, he tells us that it’s “the equivalent of about three tall bottles of imported mineral water”. That’s both snooty and useless. How tall are these tall bottles? From which brand of imported mineral water? What if I don’t drink imported mineral water?

I was left with a very bad taste in my mouth after reading American Cheeses, so I went out afterwards to get something with a better taste. I found a great cheese in the Surchoix Gruyere from Roth Kase, a cheesemaker from Monroe, Wisconsin. No, I didn’t go to Wisconsin to get it. I went to a local grocery store: Wegmans, down in Ithaca, New York. I didn’t consult a guidebook to cheeses to find it either. I talked to the person working behind the cheese counter.

Now that I’m back home, I see that this particular cheese is listed in American Cheeses, but the book doesn’t actually say anything about the cheese, except that it won an award. I didn’t see enough about that cheese in reading the book to actually set it apart from anything else.

Here’s what I can tell you from my own inexpert experience: It’s a strong cheese that goes right up to the border of stinkyland, but refuses to cross over. It’s nutty, and slightly sour, with a nice solid texture that slices easily but is a bit more dry than a typical cheddar. I’m drinking it with a Dona Paula estate Malbec from 2007, which itself has a strong, slightly rough spicy kind of taste and an aroma that launches itself right out of the glass and into your nose. This wine and this cheese are a great combination, each one strong enough to stand up to the other, without drowning the other out.

To tell the truth, I still want to try reading about cheese, though I’ve had a negative experience with American Cheeses. I think I may pick up a copy of the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese next.

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