Usually around the holidays I pick up our family’s copy of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Since I’m a bit of a science-nerd reading a chapter here and there is really fun, even when it’s a re-read. Yesterday I went over the section on cheeses. Both the science and history were rather interesting, and I particularly considered deeply the cross-cultural and generational issues.
Growing up in the northeast as a kid I ate Kraft singles, but when I moved to Oregon it was all about Tillamook. I hadn’t thought about this contrast until a friend who went to graduate school in Boston brought it up as a major culinary difference. Of course the Pacific Northwest, or Wisconsin for that matter, have nothing compared to the diverse and historically ancient traditions of Europe when it comes to cheeses.
The author of On Food and Cooking attributes the rise of cookie-cutter bland American cheeses to the combination of this nation’s short history along with the rise of industrial food production in the 20th century. Since the first publication of the book though in the 1980s much has changed. I haven’t touched a Kraft singles in over 20 years, and a slab of Tillamook cheddar is my “basic cheese” now. Though there is a socioeconomic aspect to this, I think part of the change has been a genuine shift toward consuming more diverse flavors and textures. The marketplace has changed, and tastes have expanded.
In my post on Chipotle my criticism had a lot to do with the fact that I think Chipotle is to “authentic food” what Taco Bell is to “Mexican” cuisine. I’ve gone to Chipotle in the past, it’s food is fine, but the talk about locally sourced and GMO-free just struck me as so much cant (albeit, profitable for a long time). Some things are simply difficult to commoditize. Once you commoditize them then problems ensue. But when it comes to the proliferation of cheeses in America today, it’s actually the importation and spread of traditions which have a long history. They’re authentic not because they’re repackaging distinct constituent elements of authenticity (e.g., “hand-made”, “local”, “seasonal”), but are organically developed traditions which accrued through historical trial and error, and not marketing artifice. Often these cheeses cost a great deal more on a per unit basis than a slab of Tillamook cheddar, let along Kraft singles, but I think a piece of fromager d’affinois is worth it.