Artisanal American Cheese Was Finally on Top of the World, and Then the World Fell Apart
Talking to Joe Berkowitz, author of “American Cheese,” about the United States’ blossoming artisanal cheese scene, and the challenges it faces amid wildfires and a pandemics it faces amid wildfires and a pandemic
What do you envision when you think of American cheese? Probably not Wisconsin’s squeaky curds or an aged Vermont cheddar. Instead, you most likely see those melty, tangy, flat yellow squares, individually wrapped in plastic and paired with Wonder Bread or a fast-food cheese burger. I happen to love them in a grilled cheese, or stuffed in roti, or slowly melting over dollar ramen. However, the world of American cheese — or rather American-made cheese — is far more complex than than Kraft singles.
In his new book, American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World, Joe Berkowitz hopes to expand what we view as American cheese. Inspired by a tasting event at Murray’s Cheese in Manhattan, he dedicated himself to learning everything he could about American cheese production over the course of a year. What he found was a vibrant world of innovative and experimental techniques, unencumbered by the strict rules and traditions of European cheesemaking. And he’s not the only one making this exciting discovery: Last year, Rogue River Blue, made by Rogue Creamery in southern Oregon, became the first ever American-made cheese to win World’s Best Cheese at the World Cheese Awards in Italy.
Sadly, many employees of Rogue Creamery have lost their homes in the wildfires that have consumed much of the West Coast, and the creamery itself had to evacuate some of its cows to keep them safe. Artisan cheesemakers have faced an uphill battle against climate change, as well as outdated federal regulations and now the pandemic. Understanding what these makers are trying to protect is of the utmost urgency.
Berkowitz spoke to Eater about why cheese inspires such glee, and why the American farms, techniques, and producers are worth protecting. Hopefully, the next time you’re crafting a cheese plate, you won’t just look to Europe for the good stuff.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Eater: You compare the American cheese scene to American wine in the ’70s, when Americans went to France and won a blind taste test. The whole world of American cheese seems so exciting and dynamic. What is it about cheese that attracts a certain type of fun, weird person?
Joe Berkowitz: I don’t know what it is about cheese that does it, but weird, interesting, dynamic people do tend to be attracted to it. I met people from all kinds of walks of life who walked away from those lives to just be full-time cheese people in one way or another. I met a literary agent who abandoned her whole life and then bought a farm in Vermont. There’s a cultural thing around it, like everyone sort of relates to that 30 Rock thing of “working on my night cheese.” It’s like a less annoying bacon, you know? I guess the reason the whole bacon thing is so annoying is because it was kind of grafted onto masculinity. Whereas cheese is just a genderless, quirky enthusiasm that runs through everybody, it seems, except for people who are lactose intolerant, and I have more thoughts about that, and some people just don’t like cheese and that’s fine. But —
Wait, what are your thoughts on lactose intolerance?
Oh, well, a lot of people who think they’re lactose intolerant just aren’t, or they may have a condition but it doesn’t mean, as a blanket statement, I can’t eat cheese. What it means, for the most part, is you can’t eat fresh dairy products, probably not yogurt, definitely not a young mozzarella cheese. But when cheese ages, it sheds a lot of its lactose, and the harder aged cheeses — Parmesan, aged Gouda, things like that — people who identify as lactose intolerant should be fine eating them. This is all something I learned during the course of the book, when I asked a gastroenterologist whether I would be okay eating the amount of cheese I was going to be eating and we just ended up getting into that topic. Because everyone would make some joke about going to the bathroom when I told them what I was working on.
Your book makes the case for the vibrancy of the American artisanal cheese scene, and you have this bit at the end where you go to Europe and everybody is still a little derisive of American cheese. America has had a dairy industry for a really long time and we have all these really amazing, varied landscapes. Given the fact that we’ve had all these resources, why was cheese production sort of stagnant in America for so long?
What we mainly did is just make industrial cheese to export. We’ve been making cheese in America for a very long time. There was the creation of Monterey Jack, but then, with invention of the Kraft single, we just started making industrialized cheddar, and we would export it, and that was mainly all that we were known for. We were just mass producers of cheese rather than producers of any sort of quality. Over the decades, [European techniques] started coming to America, and cheesemakers didn’t have the regulations that they have overseas. That was a huge contributor to the vibrancy of the American cheese scene. And the amazing thing is that now American artisanal cheese is indisputably — I think, at least — as vibrant, and multifaceted, and delicious as any other in the world.
Maybe it’s changed a little bit since Rogue River Blue won best cheese in the world at the World Cheese Awards last year. But when I was interviewing people, especially people from overseas, I would ask questions like, “When did you realize that we actually did have cheese in America?” And a lot of people either have just discovered it or hadn’t discovered it. And at first I thought it was a snooty thing, but it’s not: It’s just that our cheese isn’t in shops all around the world. Some places carry it, but for the most part it’s still kind of like a weird secret. But hopefully that won’t be the case for much longer.
Part of the issue being America’s raw milk regulations. What do you think it’ll take to not just change those regulations, but to get Americans to trust raw milk cheese?
I guess raw milk cheese is a lot like socialism, in that it works perfectly in so many other countries around the world, but for Americans it’s not enough to convince them. There would just need to be enough consensus and enough petitioning the FDA to take a closer look, because the studies under which we initially got these 60-day regulations (because of listeria outbreaks in America) — first of all, those studies were only done against cheddar and there are so many different kinds of cheese. But things are so, so different now, and it’s silly that we adhere to these rules pretty much arbitrarily because that was what was decided at the time.
Rogue River Blue winning the WCS award seemed like a huge deal for American cheese, but then COVID-19 hit. What is the pandemic doing to the American cheese scene?
That’s been really sad to watch, because this time last year everyone was really freaked out about the tariffs resulting from the war between Boeing and Aerobus, and what that would mean for their businesses. It ended up not being so bad. So for that to happen and, several months later, to have this pandemic come along and seriously mess up businesses has just been heartbreaking. A lot of cheesemakers rely on the restaurant business to buy from them directly. And that money’s gone, because nobody’s buying to-go cheese courses from a restaurant.
Cheese shops have also been affected a lot. For me personally, seeing Bedford Cheese Shop close [its Brooklyn location] was really sad. I didn’t know until I went into Bedford Cheese Shop that you could have the monger pick out some cheeses for you based on what you tell them, and they will serve it to you on a plate in a beautiful presentation with a bunch of fixings. And then [cheese producers] Jasper Hill had to sell off a herd of their cows. They’re just buying milk from local producers now, and they’re like the number-one independent cheesemaker in the country. So if they’re having to make sacrifices, then there’s got to be a lot of people who are not as established who are hurting too.
America’s cheesemakers also just got to this point of being recognized. The traditions aren’t as established as they are in Italy or France, where people might rally behind the industry as a whole. It seems like it’s in a very precarious spot.
I know that conditions have been tough for dairy farmers for a long time, and it’s gotten even worse in the last two years. I believe a double-digit percentage of Wisconsin’s dairy farms disappeared in the last year. There’s been billions in government money unilaterally allocated to “farmers,” but the line on that has been that money is kind of a bribe so that American farmers don’t get mad about the tariffs that have been going on. But the smaller farmers don’t necessarily benefit from that money.
In your book you have this whole section dealing with the fact that you’re a vegetarian, and coming to the realization that the dairy industry is so inherently tied to the meat industry, such that you can’t consider yourself free of it. Is there a world in which we could have cheese free from meat?
Well, it would involve a lot of drastic changes. We would have to prioritize cow welfare in a way that I seriously think we’re incapable of right now. So it doesn’t seem feasible to me at this time. I wish it was. I wish that there was space and the will to take these single-serving-use male cows and keep them alive after they’ve impregnated female cows and served their purpose. But right now, as soon as that happens, they’re off to their next purpose, which is beef supply. And because of how much money that generates, I don’t know how there’s ever going to be no demand for beef.
It’s an unfortunate reality, and I was coming to terms with it when I was visiting these farms. I really thought about going vegan. It’s something I’m interested in, but I just didn’t want to write a book about how awesome cheese is that ends in me becoming vegan. So for that reason alone I never seriously considered it, but I felt pushed in that direction by my conscience while I was researching the book.
I know that there’s a saying that happy cows make the best milk, and from what I’ve seen, it’s actually true that the better you treat cows, the better the milk is. And there have been studies showing that when cows are frightened, and uncomfortable, and feel bad all the time, their cortisol shoots up and the milk tastes more bitter. So not only is it unethical, but it tastes bad. But I sort of assume after my experience writing the book that the better farms, and dairies, and creameries use milk from cows that were treated as best as they could be treated.
At this point in your diet, is there still room for Kraft Singles?
It’s weird: With grocery-store singles, I think there’s a hierarchy of mediocrity. The top level that you can get to is “This tastes pretty damned good on a cheeseburger” — or a veggie burger, in my case. I think there’s room for shredded mild to make your mac and cheese a bit more creamy, and there’s awesome artisanal cheeses that I want to buy just so that we can eat those off a plate and feel like we’re having a delicacy.