The New American Cheese

by Laura Werlin

Published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang

280 pages, 2000

ISBN: 1556709900

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Only the Cheesiest

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


I've often wondered about the people that invented cheese. I mean, how did this happen? I imagine a small group of people moving through the desert on camelback or maybe on horses. And they've all got wineskins filled with water. Except for one smart aleck who has insisted on bringing goat's milk. "My wineskin rocks this world!" he has bellowed. "I made it so well, it'll keep anything cold for as long as I need it to be cold." His companions shake their heads as they move out and while his wineskin keeps things very cold for very long, inevitably at one stop he opens said wineskin to discover -- well, a foul stench and an absence of as much liquid as he started with -- but, more importantly, cheese.

OK so, I'll admit it. This is very likely a stretch but, think about it: something had to have happened. Something special. And, of course, since that time, we've come a long way, baby.

Cheese as we're exposed to it in the new world in the new millennium doesn't look much like the stuff our friend would have cut out of his wineskin. In fact, visit a cheese store in any large metropolitan center and you'll be amazed and delighted at all of the possibilities: the fabulous offerings in different colors, shapes, textures, flavors and origins. It's fun. It can be baffling. And it's also easy to see that there's a cheese for every gastronomic purpose: from appetizers to any sort of main course and even on into dessert. Cheese rocks.

The New American Cheese is a very good primer on cheese in general, but it adds a new world element. It's a pretty well known fact that if you say the word "cheese" to a large percentage of Americans, a bright orange rectangular brick is what will pop into their minds. It's not their fault. The fact is, for a very long time and in some places even now, there wasn't really much on offer besides Cheddar and its American-bred cousin (thanks, Mr. Kraft) processed cheese.

That was then. What author Laura Werlin points out in her encyclopedic The New American Cheese is that not only have American tastes been stretching in cheese sophistication, but American cheesemakers are increasingly producing various types of cheeses that can hold their own on the cheese platters of the world. And high time, too.

Werlin admits that the American-made cheese that most people are exposed to and that ends up at the supermarket is entirely made by machine. However, it is mostly handcrafted and specialty cheeses that The New American Cheese concerns itself with. In fact, Werlin provides brief profiles of 50 cheesemakers in The New American Cheese. These are interesting and informative and really punctuate the handmade aspect of the cheesemaking endeavor as you meet the people who are working hard to curdle their milk for the sake of their art and your table.

The book begins just where it should: with the evolution of cheesemaking in America. Werlin handles this with just the right tone: enough meaty (cheesy?) facts to satisfy the amateur historian, yet brisk enough for the casual (cheese) dipper. Not surprisingly, the first cheesemaking in the United States is credited to the pilgrims who, lacking refrigeration, were no doubt anxious to find a way to preserve their precious milk.

Other chapters deal with the manufacture of cheese; cheese and health considerations; how to properly taste, store and buy cheese; cheese and wine pairings; how to properly prepare a cheese course; and some of the considerations when cooking with cheese. Then, of course, the recipe section which is rich and well-rounded, as demanded by the subject matter. The chapter headings give strong hints: Starters and Appetizers; Bread and Cheese; Salads; Pizza, Polentas, Pastas and Risotti; Main Courses; Vegetables and Side Dishes; Desserts; and finally Cheese Classics. The recipes themselves are clear and uncomplicated -- even in the case of traditionally complicated dishes. Here Werlin brings the book back to grassroots as each cheese has a couple of options: the author lists the handmade cheese first and in brackets a more easily obtainable substitute. For example, the Baby Swiss Cheese Soufflé calls for a half pound of Baby Swiss cheese or, Werlin advises, you can substitute Swiss cheese, Emmentaler or Gruyere.

Finishing the book like parmesan on a good risotto is a resource directory that includes an excellent and lengthy glossary of cheese terms; a list of cheesemakers around the U.S. including contact information; a resource listing that includes important cheese addresses -- the American Cheese Society is listed here, among others -- as well as a list of "selected cheese retailers across the country."

The New American Cheese is perfectly rounded and complete. An excellent addition to the cheese lover's cookbook shelf. | June 2000


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her latest novel, Calculated Loss, is set in Vancouver, where Madeline Carter sets out to investigate the suspicious death of a professional chef.