An MIT anthropology professor writes about artisan cheese
CAMBRIDGE — Author Clifton Fadiman once called cheese “milk’s leap toward immortality.”
Heather Paxson, an anthropology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uncovered a similar sentiment when she explored the world of modern American artisan cheesemakers for her book “The Life of Cheese.” Both scholarly and accessible, the book profiles people who make cheese and delves into the science, art, politics, and culture, as it were, of these artisan products.
“What attracts a lot of people to cheesemaking,” says Paxson recently in her office, “is that it’s magical: the transubstantiation of fluid milk to solid food. A lot of people [I interviewed] described cheese’s liveliness and used developmental metaphors like ‘hitting puberty’ and ‘maturity.’ They anthropomorphize the cheese.”
Artisan cheesemaking is undergoing a renaissance in this country, so much so that narratives of city dwellers who chuck it all and buy a goat farm, or of fourth-generation dairy farmers who keep the family homestead by creating and selling a wonderful new cheese, have become commonplace.
As an anthropologist and an academic, Paxson, 44, takes a longer view of the subject. She invokes the phrase “post-pastoral ethos” to describe the approach of today’s artisans, and says that a “perfect storm” of factors led to the rise of modern American cheesemaking, and that those factors began to come together many years ago. “Like most social movements,” she notes, “it only looks like a movement in retrospect.”
It all began, she says, with the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s; she also sees feminism as critical to the rise of the early artisan cheesemakers, a group of women, she says, informally and affectionately known as the “goat ladies.”
“They left the city with college degrees. They’d been reading Rodale books and the ‘Whole Earth Catalog.’ They wanted to be independent and self-sufficient,” says Paxson. It started as a counterculture project, she says, that soon became entrepreneurial.
The rise of farmers’ markets made it easier for farmers to bring their cheeses to the public, and made consumers more aware of farmstead cheeses. In the ’90s, too, the strong dollar helped create a US market for European cheeses; conversely, in the following decade, the comparative strength of the euro made those cheeses pricier, so domestic cheeses became more attractive to consumers.
Paxson goes on to explain that the ’90s also gave rise to a desire for “nonstandard, non-industrialized products, and nonstandard, non-industrial lifestyles. Cheesemaking appealed to people the way that some start-up dot-coms did. It was the rural counterpart to that.” And finally, she says, “9/11 was a turning point; after that, you saw business consultants buying farms in Vermont.” All those factors created a momentum that continues to build, despite the difficulty of succeeding as an artisan cheesemaker.
Paxson, whose previous work focused on ethics and family planning in Greece, came to her subject in the most natural way: “I started as a consumer . . . I’ve always liked cheese.” Living in New York a decade or so ago, she discovered the joys of artisanal American cheeses by shopping at Murray’s, the venerable cheese vendor, and at the Greenmarket farmers’ market.
On this day, she’s brought a few favorite cheeses to her office, and the rich, funky aroma of Hooligan, a washed-rind cheese made in Connecticut at Cato Corner Farm, permeates the air. As it happens, Hooligan represents a turning point in Paxson’s cheese education. In 2001, a student brought her a chunk from the Greenmarket as a gift, and Paxson was intrigued to learn that it had been made so close to New York. Her anthropological training kicked in as she wondered who had made it, and how, and why. (The surprising answer was that the cheesemaker was an old college acquaintance.)
Although she isn’t exactly training the next generation of cheesemakers, Paxson does bring some of her cheese background into her courses at MIT. In a class called “Art, Craft, Science,” the students make mozzarella and then write up the lab procedure. “They’re happy with the results,” she says, “though some of it doesn’t really look like mozzarella.”
After years of extensive research, Paxson has great respect for artisan cheesemakers, and few illusions about the reality of creating farmstead cheese.
“The romance sells,” she says, referring to pastoral images of a simple, rural life. “But the romance is a fiction. Behind the romance is labor. Eighty percent of it is washing equipment, dealing with coyotes, and unpaid bills.”