On My Shelf: American Cheeses

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The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmhouse CheesesLast weekend, I wandered back into Omnivore Books on Food to pick up a copy of Margaret Visser’s The Rituals of Dinner, that store owner Celia Sacks was kind enough to order for me (without my even having to ask, thank you very much).

I knew Clark Wolf, author of American Cheeses: The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmhouse Cheeses would be there, talking about his book with Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy.

As an American who happens to love cheese, the timing of my store visit required little thought.

When I arrived a little late for the reading (owing to the fact that I had my face buried too deeply in another book, missed my stop, and had to walk an extra five blocks), the tiny book store was filled with people focused on the animated Mr. Wolf talking of his grandparents and the role they played in his culinary imprinting.

Chatty and extremely energetic in a way that I envy, but would find personally exhausting, Wolf read excepts from his book. For example, when explaining why the difference in price of cow v. goat v. sheep milk cheese:

…sheep act like, well, sheep. If there’s a storm a-comin' or one of the flock feels blue or there's a new horse in the corral or a new dog in the field, they may just freak out and decide not to give milk, or be too upset to move easily into the milking barn. And when all is well, they still give only about a liter a day per sheep.

clark wolf


After Wolf's presentation, I decided to buy a copy of the book, having liked what he said enough to want to read more about American Cheese. And, no, not that kind of American Cheese, though that is briefly but firmly discounted in the book. I then asked him to sign my Margaret Visser book, since she was not present.

I'm glad I bought the book. It is as personable and informal as Wolf is in person, which is a good thing. Though not encyclopedic in its scope, there is a lot of good information to be gleaned from its pages.

From such basic information as the definition of what constitutes cheese, the different categories of it, how each is made, and good looking recipes in which they might find good employ, to the short biographies of America’s leading cheese producers, it reads more like a “getting to know you” book-- as though, through reading, you have casually picked the brain of an entertaining cheesemonger, which is essentially how Clark Wolf began to gain his 30-plus years of cheese-related knowledge in the first place.

But what , if anything, defines a cheese as "American?" Is there some unifying factor? Some unique coagulate or binding force? Not exactly. When asking, for example, a Southern cheese maker in what ways her colleagues were regionally unifiable and identifiable, he received this response: "Absolutely no way at all. We’re each completely different." And that was just the Southern contingent. If one starts to think about California cheese makers, one’s head might explode trying to come up with an answer.

Perhaps this lack of cohesion is what makes American Cheese makers, well, uniquely American. Or perhaps not. I look to the French, as so many cheese makers have done in the past, to put things into perspective. I will leave you with the unmistakably French, shoulder-shrugging cynicism of Charles de Gaulle:

One can't impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kinds of cheese.