A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese
By Gordon Edgar
One of the oldest, most ubiquitous, and beloved cheeses in the world, the history of cheddar is a fascinating one. Over the years it has been transformed, from a painstakingly handmade wheel to a rindless, mass-produced block, to a liquefied and emulsified plastic mass untouched by human hands. The Henry Fordism of cheddar production in many ways anticipated the advent of industrial agriculture. They don’t call it “American Cheese” for nothing.
Cheddar is one man’s picaresque journey to find out what a familiar food can tell us about ourselves. Cheddar may be appreciated in almost all American homes, but the advocates of the traditional wheel versus the processed slice often have very different ideas about food. Since cheddar—with its diversity of manufacturing processes and tastes—is such a large umbrella, it is the perfect food through which to discuss many big food issues that face our society.
More than that, though, cheddar actually holds a key to understanding not only issues surrounding food politics, but also some of the ways we think of our cultural identity. Cheddar, and its offshoots, has something to tell us about this country: the way people rally to certain cheddars but not others; the way they extol or denounce the way others eat it; the role of the commodification of a once-artisan cheese and the effect that has on rural communities. The fact that cheddar is so common that it is often taken for granted means that examining it can lead us to the discovery of usually unspoken truths.
Author Gordon Edgar (Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge) is well equipped to take readers on a tour through the world of cheddar. For more than fifteen years he has worked as an iconoclastic cheesemonger in San Francisco, but his sharp talent for observation and social critique were honed long before then, in the world of ’zines, punk rock, and progressive politics. His fresh perspectives on such a seemingly common topic are as thought provoking as they are entertaining.
Reviews and Praise
“From the chief ingredient in Kraft's Mac ‘n’ Cheese to the quintessential artisan creation, cheddar cheese represents the extremes of American food culture—all delightfully deconstructed and savored in Gordon Edgar's eponymous book. Great reading for aficionados of food and cultural history.”--Sally Fallon Morell, president, The Weston A. Price Foundation
"Edgar (Cheesemonger) explores the U.S. production of cheddar cheese and how this popular food has affected American history and culture. The book focuses on the broad history of cheddar production from its origins in England to current methods used in the United States with emphasis on the cheese hubs of Wisconsin, Vermont, and California. The culture and politics surrounding cheesemaking and dairy farming in these states are compared and contrasted, and interspersed with amusing anecdotes from Edgar’s many cheese-judging and research trips. Of course, the varying types and flavors of American cheddars and curds are discussed, using case studies of famous producers such as Cabot and Tillamook, and interviews with prominent cheesemakers. Edgar is especially interested in the ways that cheesemaking has changed over the years, and addresses changes in farming technology, scientific advances, roles of women, exports, and standardization of cheddar flavors, appearance, and processing. VERDICT: A wry look at the world of cheesemaking, this work will interest casual cheese aficionados, but its broad scope will likely not provide new information to fervent fans or industry professionals.”
“On the surface, it would be easy to dismiss a book about a cheese so integral to the gustatory fabric of the American experience that it’s hardly noticed as much more than a standard hamburger’s melted shroud. But this paean to America’s cheese tells the journey of a food integrally linked to the rise of ‘cultures’ in America (cheese and manufacturing, both) and, no less, to our value system. In Gordon’s eminently capable hands, what could be a staid single-subject book is blithely entertaining, peppered with laugh-out-loud, respectful and occasionally irreverent anecdotes, and ultimately a story chock-full of historical and contextual references that come together to create a newfound understanding and respect for a cheese that, because of this essential book, will never be ‘just cheddar’ again.”--Laura Werlin, author of Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials
“Cheddar by Gordon Edgar is a book of vignettes, ripened from the author's wanderings around the country, milled with both large and small cheese-making experiences, peppered throughout with Gordon's political views, and aged to perfection. Edgar shares his knowledge in sometimes smooth, sometimes sharp, and sometimes bitter ways, coming up with an overview that is tried, ripened, and ready to read.”--Ricki Carroll, owner, New England Cheesemaking Supply Company
“Gordon Edgar’s latest work, Cheddar, is a lively story of this much-maligned but iconic cheese. No longer will I quickly pass over the large blocks of golden cheddar. Edgar has traveled the country unearthing the historic roots of cheddar, from the artisan clothbound wheels to the mass-produced blocks of commodity cheese, and writes with wit and humor. His passion and experience as a cheesemonger are evident, and the reader can’t help but love cheddar by the end of this spirited book.”--Kurt Timmermeister, author of Growing a Farmer
“In this witty and well-researched study of an iconic food, Gordon Edgar serves up a satisfying slice of Americana. More than any other cheese, cheddar evidences America’s tradition of innovation and embodies the paradoxes of our food system. From mammoth, processed blocks to clothbound, lard-rubbed wheels, Edgar details how cheddar straddles the continuum of industrial and artisanal manufacture to safely nourish great numbers of people while reinforcing class distinctions marked by taste. This welcome book credits the labor and ingenuity of America’s food makers, both past and present.”--Heather Paxson, author of The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America
“Over the years I have read many thought-provoking works on cheddar cheese, mostly dealing with cheese science and technology, but rarely have such texts been ‘fun’ to read. Gordon Edgar’s exploration of cheddar is both thought-provoking and fun, and has given me a fresh perspective on a cheese that I have studied for years and cherished all my life.”--Paul Kindstedt, author of Cheese and Culture
“Kudos to Gordon Edgar for his comprehensive history and contemporary analysis of America’s iconic cheese. For any lover of cheddar, Edgar crafts the story of its unique place--from early farm-based, handmade products to standardized, industrial cheese to its renaissance over the past twenty to twenty-five years. A book to savor, it helps us understand how cheddar evolves over four centuries. He stirs an entertaining vat of literature, science, poetry, and sociology to reflect broad changes in American agriculture and our connections to food and place. Make sure to have a piece of cheddar, and perhaps a glass of beer, to accompany your journey!”--Jeffrey Roberts, author of The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese