American Cheese (not Kraft singles, aka, "Thank God for the hippies")

By Risa Wechsler | August 23, 2005 12:18 am

Sorry for my extended absense here, I just returned home this weekend, and my travels were just too too busy. It’s weeks like the last two that made me think it was impossible to have a blog before I had such lovely co-bloggers to cover for me! I’ll write in the next day or two something about what I’ve been up to and about the conference that I was at. But at the moment I’m just going to write a few words about cheese, one of my all-time favorite things to rave about.

My first real evening home, and I was lucky enough to be back in time for an event of cheese and wine tasting celebrating the first anniversary of my neighborhood cheese shop, Pastoral. It was cosponsored by Slow Food Chicago — Slow Food is a movement founded in Italy in the mid 80’s, which is all about making food and the pleasure of eating central to life, appreciating regional and seasonal food, and supporting sustainable agriculture and small family farms. If you are in Chicago, or just dining in Chicago, I highly recommend the book that they just came out with this year, the Slow Food Guide to Chicago.

Anyways, we had some great stuff — artisanal cheese in America is undergoing a real renasssaince, most of which has been in just the last decade. The Fromagier (head cheese guy) at Pastoral gave a little history of cheese in America, which basically went: Pilgrims made some good cheese, but then big machines cometh with Kraft singles, and then “Thank God for the hippies”, who in the late 60’s started worrying about where their food was coming from, and started the seeds of what has become a wonderful and rapidly-growing American cheese market, which each year puts out more small, locally produced, delicious farmstead cheeses than the year before (this guy is a foodie but most certainly not a hippie, so I found this amusing). Apparently, membership in the American Cheese Society has doubled in the last 5 years. These guys have good taste, it seems, because one of my favorite cheeses from the evening, called Pleasant Ridge Reserve, won “Best in Show” at the most recent annual competition. These babies ain’t your mama’s American cheese — if you are lucky enough to have a local cheese shop or a local cheese counter near you, stop by and spend some time there.
Eat, and enjoy.

[This is all close to my heart, I grew up in the organic food business, raised by one of said food-obsessed hippies, who is now making some fantastic organic farmstead cheese of his own in northwestern Washington.]

P.S. Should have mentioned that Saveur had a nice special issue a few months ago, all about “the new glory in American cheese”, with a list of their 50 favorites.

  • Clifford

    Hi Risa. Great post! So I do sometimes buy cheeses from individual makers in some of the farmer’s markets that I frequent here in Los Angeles. However, I feel that I am not neccessarily learning anything about any California cheeses of note. I was led to beleive (by a marketing campaign some years back) that I should be able to find some excellent California cheeses. Might you (or any of your readers) point me to some of their favourites?


    “California cheeses of note” – that’s definitely going to get me beaten up in the playground.

  • Risa

    More of it is in No Cal than So Cal, but often some of the best is at your local farmer’s markets — the difference between cheese made from the milk of a few happy grazing cows and big farm milk is tastable. So I’m not sure I even like the concept of “California cheeses of note”! But a few smaller but better known artisinal CA cheesemakers are: Cowgirl Creamery, Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese (just had some of this tonight), and Cypress Grove (mostly goat cheese).
    You can also take a look at that article if you can track it down.

  • Clifford

    Thanks! I think I’ve had some of the Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, and also the Cypress Grove….those names sound familiar. Will hunt some more. A great new cheese shop opened last year in the neighbourhood and I keep forgetting to ask there. Will also take a look at the article.



  • Clifford

    Risa: Those are some fine-looking cows on the front page of that link you gave. :-) -cvj

  • JoAnne

    The Cowgirl Creamery Mt Tam and Redhawk cheeses are indeed outstanding! Humboldt Fog and Pt Reyes Blue and also two of my favorites. Cypress Grove leaves me cold though, but then I prefer gooey stinky cheeses.

  • Risa

    Yeah, actually, I’m not a huge fan of Cypress Grove either, since I’m with you on the gooey stinky thing.

    And Clifford — thanks, I love those cows!

  • Athena

    Yes! Hooray for cheese! Thanks for the info on artisan cheeses, always great to find out about other small producers. I recently attended a tasting of artisan cheeses, and had that Pleasant Ridge Reserve paired with rosemary crackers, though the cheese was best without other competing flavors. My favorite from this set of divine cheeses was an enjoyable goat cheese: Chevre-Purple Haze, which tasted of lavender meadows; it can be purchased at Whole Foods.

    Interesting reference to Kraft’s “big machines”, since their food service group has a partnership with Kendall College where the Pastoral and Slow Food tasting was held.

    Kraft’s not all about processed cheese… : )

  • Ed

    The American Cheese Society has a brochure listing this year’s winners from their annual competition. It includes many Californian cheesemakers.

    Also, here’s an article in the Mercury News about the California winners:

  • Adam

    Getting decent cheese in the US is no trivial task.

    And I can’t find Halloumi anywhere.

  • Clifford

    Adam. That’s a bit of a generalisation. It really depends upon where you are. There are some places where the availability of decent cheese is better than several places in England, for example. All depends….


  • Adam

    I’ve only been looking in parts of the North East, and I have been able to get some decent stuff (mostly imported, as one might expect; that’s no different to London, of course). Inexplicably, however, no halloumi yet.

    My brother has had the same problem, incidentally, and is more widely travelled (within the US) than I am.

  • Adam

    Risa, of course, is up there near the Land of Cheese.

  • Clifford

    Well, if you fixate on one cheese in particular, then you’ve a problem. Have you tried going parts of (whereever you live) that has a large Middle-Eastern community? You’re not going to have much chance of finding a specialist soft goat’s milk cheese in your local Ralph’s or Lucky’s, right? 😉

    Also, is it unpastuerized? This can often be the problem. Alterrnatively, try ordering from companies on the web. You just can’t beat this country for being able to get all sorts of things by mail order.


  • Adam

    Hmmm, it appears that commercial Halloumi is pasteurised. Maybe there aren’t many Greeks living near here. Or where I was before this. I used to live in NW London and there, even Budgens stocked it.

    The other thing I’ve noticed here, in my experience, is that what is marketed as a strong cheddar is pretty low on flavour and smell. Admittedly, I like very strong cheddar, but I’ve found it to be not such a big choice of decent strength cheddar.

    It’s not like the UK is great for cheese, of course (not compared to France!).

  • Clifford

    Hey! The UK is great for cheese…of the appropriate type.

    For nice basic commercial cheddars with flavour, try the aged Cabot range from Vermont. (They call themselves “the world’s best cheddar”, which makes me fall about laughing.) There are several others too, and some well known ones from Wisconsin that I can’t recall. You should find Cabot in a half-decent supermarket.

    If you insist, you should be able to get cheddars from the UK in some good stores too.


  • Adam

    I get the strongest Cabot cheddar I can find, but it’s not the sort that sets your teeth on edge, alas. They do import English cheddar to the local supermarket (some some other British cheeses) but it’s not fabulous.

    Of course, this is nothing compared to the difficulty of finding Ribena at anything less than an insane price (or, indeed, any price). I may resort to buying it over the net, but it’s not cheap that way, either. On the plus side, at least I can get hold of proper tea at the local supermarket (well, Tetley teabags, but you know what I mean).

  • Clifford

    Ah. Secret tip for Ribena. Find your local chinese food supermarket. Somewhere in there you may find Ribena, and at a relatively decent price.

    It’s one of those amusing anomalies….I suspect that Hong Kong is the culprit.

    On tea bags….make sure that they are not ones that are manufactured for the US market, but actual imports. Tolerances (amount of tea in bag, for example) are different, apparently, although I confess to never having done the measurement. (Probably the shifty store owner trying to sell me the imported one at twice the price told me it and I believed it ‘cos I’m such a trusting guy…..)


  • Adam

    Having drunk a lot of tea over here, I agree with you that the imported stuff is the only way to guarantee the real deal. Unless you want to wait 10 minutes for a barely tolerable brew (I do at least have a tea cosy for my teapot, so it doesn’t go cold).

    The Asian food market where I used to live was indeed the very place for Ribena, but it never occurred to me that it might be true of them in general. Cheers for that; I shall check the local one here.


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