Heather Paxson’s The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America

Paxson Life of Cheese

The Life of Cheese Crafting Food and Value in America

University of California Press, 2012, 332 pages.

Heather Paxson’s The Life of Cheese might seem like an odd book to review for Somatosphere, but a quick glance reveals chapters such as “Microbiopolitics” and “Ecologies of Production” which feel as familiar as well-worn flannel. The Life of Cheese examines the values and meanings produced in tandem with artisanal cheese: a process where cheesemakers involve themselves with landscapes, ruminants (goats, sheep, and cattle), bacteria, fungi, thermometers, and farmers markets. The Life of Cheese is a book about artisanal assemblages in America. Examining American agriculture—artisanal and conventional—through assemblages is a worthwhile endeavor and one that has potential for many future research projects. I hope that I will be one of them.

The first chapter “American Artisanal” introduces two important concepts underpinning Paxson’s analysis: the “unfinished commodity” and the “post-pastoral ethos.” An “unfinished commodity” is a saleable object that contains multiple values (economic, moral, personal, etc.) and an unveiled history of production. For example, the story of Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue is an integral part of the commodity and not a fetter hidden beneath an avalanche of advertising. When cheese is sold at market, photos of the farm, family, and animals might be placed alongside it to tell its tale. The commodity’s biography is consciously exposed and elucidated by its makers. This is a far cry from most food purchased at the grocery store where advertising and packaging aim to obscure the commodity’s life history. I have reservations about the “unfinished commodity” being distinct and separate from other commodities. I believe that capitalism’s ability to transform a commodity’s hidden history into mere marketing trumps the best intentions of artisanal entrepreneurs. However, Paxson is correct in her description of how food is marketed by new agrarians. The “post-pastoral” refers to a non-binary understanding of nature and culture. For post-pastoralists, nature is not replaced or civilized by culture, but rather they work together, they are co-workers. Cheesemaking becomes a multi-species team sport where everyone is working and playing together instead of the imposition of human order upon nature’s disorder. This is different from a traditional pastoral understanding of the world where nature and culture are separated and human activity takes place in towns and cities away from the land. For Paxson, the “unfinished commodity” and the “post-pastoral” are key concepts in understanding the material, semiotic, and multi-species assemblages embedded within the “American Artisanal.”

Chapter two, “Ecologies of Production,” examines the material and moral ecologies that produce a cheese’s flavor, texture, taste, and smell. Artisanal cheese is made by human hands, but “ruminant animals, herding and guarding dogs, and bacteria, yeasts and molds also contribute” (31). Artisanal dairying and its products are rendered moral by recognizing non-humans as laborers and their labor as a social good. Small-scale cheese entrepreneurship is understood as good and natural because “the entire assemblage of photosynthesis, rumination, lactation, and fermentation is imagined, orchestrated, funded, regulated and appreciated by humans operating within broader political economies” where labor and business is recognized as virtuous (41). Artisanship is seen as a moral and personal response to the immoral, impersonal industrial capitalism of large-scale production. Within an artisanal ecology, ruminants are not milk machines but co-workers with distinct personalities that reveal the concerns and interests of individual farmers. According to a farmer interviewed by Paxson, goats are troublesome and have distinct demeanors that attract animal lovers. Sheep are thought to be stupid, without individual personality; they are a flock, and are preferred by farmers interested in pasture maintenance. And cattle seem to attract folks who are interested in working with heavy machinery. While working on a dairy, I was told jokingly that Jerseys, a small cow with milk high in butterfat, were for farmers who were too proud to milk goats, the implication being that “real” dairy farmers milk large cows that produce a lot of milk: Holsteins.

The Life of Cheese is not a multi-species ethnography, but a further exploration of animal and farmer relations would have been greatly appreciated. If I ruminate on my eleven months working on a dairy and the life of particular ricotta cheeses and yogurts, it requires taking into consideration my daily involvement with a herd of sixty or so cows: some who I adored, some who I detested, and some who were just there. The herd was composed of various breeds (Holsteins, Jerseys, Line Backs, Brown Swiss, and mixed) and individual cows had particular physical features or ailments that made milking easy or difficult. Within various cheeses and yogurts was the milk of all these cows as well as all the work that made that milk possible. This work is ethically and emotionally messy. It is not just stringing up electric fence and making hay; cows are culled or put down with some regularity. (To put it flippantly, at other workplaces “co-workers” are not shot in the head and thrown in the back of a pick-up truck when they fall and break a leg.) Further research into the multi-species assemblages that make animal-based artisanal foods possible should consider their messiness. It is a sad day when a farmer kills a cow he has been milking for a better part of a decade. Everyone gets a little teary eyed.

Chapter three, “Economies of Sentiment,” explores artisanal cheesemaking as living the good life, the good life being a life lived on the land under one’s own direction and a life working with one’s hands and animals. For baby boomers, this is a life motivated by the counter-cultures of the sixties and seventies. For younger farmers, it is a response to more recent events: the dot-com crash, 9/11, and the financial crisis of 2008. To this list of influences, I would add right-wing libertarianism. Based on my experience dairying in New England, I can say the political and cultural influences on new agrarians are mixed and not always politically progressive. For example, young farmers may listen to Phish but that does not stop them from supporting Ron Paul. For artisan farmers the good life is marked by the demands of running a business. A central concern for cheesemakers is how to make a living without losing touch with the lifestyle that originally drew them to artisanal production. This is not a question of purity. In food politics, purity is largely the concern of consumers who understand agriculture in the abstract. Producers understand and experience agriculture as a compromise shaped by the day-to-day realities of running a business that is subject to moral scrutiny. How does one price cheese? Should it be available to all or does the scale of production necessitate that it remains a luxury item for wealthier consumers? Should one buy certified organic hay from another state or non-organic hay from a neighbor? Should one scale up and become management or remain small and always have one’s hands in the muck? These questions and their answers are a reflection of American agriculture and capitalism in the present moment.

Chapter four, “Traditions of Invention,” introduces us to the history of cheesemaking in the United States. Initially women made cheese as part of their household and farm chores. It was only in the mid and late nineteenth century that it entered the factory and became a blue-collar masculine profession. Despite the professionalization and technoscientific standardization of cheese making during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a handful of traditional cheese factories have continuously used artisanal methods. However, the cultural capital of newer artisans and the ubiquity of processed “American Cheese” have rendered invisible traditional cheese factories, such as the Chalet Cheese Co-Op that was founded in 1885 and is currently the only facility in the United States producing Limburger cheese. Paxson points out that American artisans do not invent tradition so much as they have a tradition of invention. Artisan cheesemakers turn Hobsbawm upside down. In France, for example, Camembert represents the peasant culture of the Ancien Régime, despite being an artifact of pasteurization and large-scale technoscientific production. In the United States, artisanal cheese is not calling upon the past but summoning a post-pastoral entrepreneurial future into the present.

Chapter five, “The Art and Science of Craft,” examines cheesemaking as a synthesis of art and science. Concocting artisanal cheese is intuitive and creative, like art. Yet it relies on empirical observation, measurement, and record keeping, like science. This allows artisanal craft to stand in contrast to industrial production, which minimizes intuition and creativity without rejecting science; a post-pastoral art sees science as a tool working with nature and nurturing production. According to Paxson, craft is “synesthetic reason”: understanding via touch, taste, smell, sight, and their various combinations (131). To grasp cheesemaking, one literally grasps curds. Negotiating risk is impossible without “synesthetic reason” and risk is central to artisanal cheese production where there is little certainty. Mass produced cheese is the offspring of certainty. Standardized, homogenized, and pasteurized milk ensures a uniform cheese. Artisanal dairying, on the other hand, involves variation and risk due to “seasonality, ambient temperature and humidity, herd health and inconsistent human practice” (134). For example, the taste of milk changes with the herd’s diet and diets change with the seasons. Negotiation of this variation involves touch, taste, smell, and sight, as well as measuring the ph and temperature of milk. Artisanal cheesemaking in the present is a post-pastoral mélange of the present and the past where technoscience mingles with tradition.

Chapter six, “Microbiopolitics,” explores the differences between the way pasteurian and post-pasteurian microbiopolitics manage risk. Microbiopolitics refers to “governmental and grassroots efforts to recognize and manage human encounters with the organic agencies of bacteria, yeasts, fungi and viruses” (160). Pasteurian microbiopolitics as practiced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sees raw milk as a dangerous biohazard, while post-pasteurian microbiopolitics as practiced by producers and consumers of raw milk and raw milk cheeses see it as a natural, traditional, healthy, probiotic food. Pasteurian microbiopolitics perceives the microbial world–and nature more generally–as an unruly, dangerous, and chaotic place. For the FDA, milk is only safe after it has been pasteurized and tamed by technoscience. Post-pasteurian microbiopolitics sees human culture as part of a multispecies assemblage in which human-microbe and human-animal relationships are in constant negotiation. Post-pasteurian artisans do not see raw milk as inherently dangerous but potentially harmful due to human error, which Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and best practices can mitigate.

Microbiopolitics seems like a relevant and useful concept for medical anthropologists. On the farm and dairy I worked on, a number of employees–including myself–have gotten very sick; campylobacter and cryptosporidium seem to have been the main culprits. Both are very common on farms. Folks new to the farm often caught a “stomach bug” almost immediately. There is a research project out there for someone interested in cross-species disease and multi-species ethnography on small farms, particularly as WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and farm apprenticeships are growing in popularity. I would have appreciated a discussion on post-pasteurian microbiopolitics and farm worker health. On the farm, we thought our immune systems were top notch. I had a human co-worker who ate numerous lunches with his hands covered in manure. I drank coffee and ate breakfast in the milking parlor as shit was splattering here, there, and everywhere.

Chapter seven, “Place, Taste and the Promise of Terroir,” discusses the French concept of terroir and its application by artisanal cheese makers in the United States. Goȗt du terroir, flavor of the terrain, is used to describe how people, tradition, and landscape co-create the taste of a place. In the United States, terroir is given an entrepreneurial and individualist twist to designate the taste of a particular farm and its products, rather than the taste of a cultural and geographical region. Terroir has become “thoughtful action” and a moral argument “rooted in the Lockean virtue of improving society through improving the land” (190). Terroir has become a critique of the industrial food system experienced as taste. American farmers are re-engineering terroir to create a sense of place through taste, to reterritorialize a food system that has been deterritorialized by global capitalism. Artisans use terroir to “demonstrate how people create place as they go about the quotidian tasks of agrarian livelihoods that physically shape landscapes and situate people’s senses of place” (211). Terroir is used to render a place affective; taste becomes a way to stir the soul. For American artisans, terroir is not about holding on to regional identities, traditions, and tastes but about disclosing another way of living: a moral, multi-species, and business savvy being-in-the-world.

“Bellwether” is the final chapter in Paxson’s The Life of Cheese. A bellwether is a castrated ram wearing bells that leads a flock of ewes to greener pastures. Are artisanal cheesemakers agriculture’s bellwether? Or to put the question more broadly, are small scale new agrarians leading agriculture to greener pastures that have not been denuded by industrial production? By reaching behind and retrieving the past, can we save the future? Is the future of agriculture a mélange of tradition and technoscience? This is an important question as California is facing a terrible drought and we may be facing existential threats owing to climate change. However, this is where I out myself as a Marxist and suggest that agriculture’s future will more likely be the Trans-Pacific Partnership than farmers markets.

I enjoyed Paxson’s The Life of Cheese and most of my comments can be subsumed under the slogan: expand the assemblages. Future research into artisanal food production and agriculture more generally should start with multi-species assemblages and then radiate outwards, encompassing more and more human and non-human components within the multiplicity. For example, understanding artisanal cheese concoction as the re-inscribing of place and a form of rural development could be further elucidated by exploring the connections between farmers and various government agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency, which provides loans and disaster assistance. The role of money and debt in capitalist societies is of particular interest to social scientists, and I imagine that for many new agrarians FSA and/or private loans may be an important part of their ecologies of production. This is just one example of how expanding the scope of assemblages outlined in The Life of Cheese could prove fruitful for future researchers. I whole-heartedly recommend The Life of Cheese for folks interested in the growth of small-scale agriculture in the late 20th and early 20th centuries, artisanal food production, and foodie culture. The Life of Cheese would not be out of place in anthropology of food or agriculture courses.

James Babbitt is beginning graduate work at Washington University in St. Louis in Sociocultural Anthropology. His research interests are animal agribusiness, science and technology studies, and critical theory. He is also pretty good at milking cows.

2 replies on “Heather Paxson’s The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America”

I enjoyed Paxson’s book and second everything Nadine said. Enjoy WUSTL anthropology!

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