A cheesy interruption.

A quick digression in reply of a post on Scott Edelman’ Blog on cheeses. I posted a reply and he seemed to ask for further info.

The upshot is that in 1878 an author in Harpers Magazine, a radical Utopianist, Marie Stevens Howland, said that she was astonished that the French had so many cheeses and the US only has a product called “Cheese” that was so uneven in quality so you needed to taste it each time to see if it was any good. I presume she was referring to store or yellow cheese as noted in this article from Mental Floss. This was the factory made Cheddar that started to grow around the time of the Civil War. This factory cheddar was the precursor to American Cheese according to this Wikipedia article. This article also points out that this cheese was heavily exported.

What does this mean? What this article caught was a transition of how food was processed to how it is processed now. As this and this article show, local, or now artisanal, cheeses were common in the US of the Colonial period up to about the middle of the 19th century. Most large farms made some variety or another. Then factory made cheese appeared. The above noted Mental Floss article gives a date of about 1851 for the first factory, it was in New York State. This gives a growing picture of how the cheese industry changed in the under 30 years between the founding of the first cheese factory with the dates of the article.

We can, and perhaps should, look at this article as an early commentary on the industrialization of the food supply. It compares the artisanal cheeses of France with the growing commodity cheese of the US, and finds them lacking. Though that does seem like comparing some Golden Glove kid to Mohammed Ali and finding them lacking.

I have some issues with the article,  and there is the feeling that a fast one is being pulled by Ms Howland. She would have been about 15 when the first factories were made, and 42 when this article was published. She would have seen the change in the cheese as how it was made changed. That isn’t commented on. Commodity products like factory cheese are made to be cheap. Cheap and plentiful. Yet Ms Howland is comparing them to the top lines in France. This would be an apples to oranges comparison. With the amount of American made cheeses being imported by Europe, and the admission that the French used salted American butter, are we to assume that American cheeses were unknown in France so they could not be directly compared. There is also this that I found. It is a business directory for NYC in the 1870s. It lists cheese importers as a class of business. So imported cheeses were available.

Her comment (as copied by Scott):

“One thing sure to surprise the American in Paris is the almost endless variety of the cheese. Here, our only idea of that article is generally the huge ‘factory cheese’ of the groceries. It has no special name, cheese to the average citizen meaning this only. He has to taste it before daring to buy it, for the name conveys little notion of its flavor or quality, and it may be mild or strong, rich or poor, though the price is the same. In Paris, no one dreams of tasting cheese when buying it.”

Fails to ring true to me. As I noted before she was 15 when the first factory was started. Artisanal cheeses had a long, though it seems fading, history. She should have known of them. He childhood home, Massachusetts is and was an prominent Dairy producing State as is New York. I would grant that Factory Cheese may have been a dominate player in the cheese business in the US. But to say “our only idea of that article” seems to be badly overstating her point. I am left to wonder, am I hearing a Utopianist Axe being ground? Or am I finding things in a hundred year old article that just aren’t there.

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7 thoughts on “A cheesy interruption.

  1. I’m a little confused. It seems that you are considering factory cheese to be the same as artisanal cheese, as if a wide range of flavors were generally made and available. But might not factory cheese be exactly how she describes it, with each factory making its own single product called cheese? The same way Henry Ford reportedly once said about his cars that “You can have any color as long as it’s black,” might not each cheese maker have offered a single, take it or leave it, generic cheese, and you had no idea what you were getting at a shop until you took a taste?

    As for there being cheese importers, it’s something she does acknowledge in her piece, because she wrote about the many varieties of cheese that “several of them are beginning to be introduced here.”

    • No. I don’t understand where you got that. If you could be more precise on which parts gave you that impression I would appreciate it. It would be most helpful in helping me improve my skills. Is there some confusion with the term “Factory Cheddar”?

      If I haven’t made it clear I don’t completely accept Ms Howland’s article. I can find no independent corroboration for how she said cheese was sold in the US in 1878, and, I find the article in internally contradictory. She refers to the “Huge Factory Cheese” as all most Americans will find then starts listing other examples later. It is not clear what shops she is thinking of in Paris or the US. In 1878 New York, where she lived for a time, was mostly immigrant and they were making and importing cheeses of many kinds, granted they would have been more German or Italian then French. Other cities in the Northeast also had significant immigrant populations. In a less urban and immigrant area like Lowell MA, where she worked, things would have been different and may be closer to what she was referring to, but I can’t find any information on that.

      I do know that there was no sort of “American” cuisine or diet in place in 1878. Everything was where you lived. In fact I don’t think there was one until McDonalds.

      It seems to me that Ms Howland is grinding an axe as well as a cheese knife.

      • Your comments about factory cheese and factory cheddar had me thinking of nothing more than handouts of government cheese, those large tasteless blocks that were cheese in name only. I’ve known folks who were forced to eat it. They weren’t happy. That’s why it didn’t change me into thinking, “Oh, my! There sure _were_ lots of tasty cheeses back then!”

        In any case, why assume that the author had an axe to grind? I prefer to think that the reason for the difference between what she saw and what you find through research is that her knowledge was based on a limited scope, what she could see with her own eyes when she walked in her own shoes, and something happening a 100 miles away might as well have been occurring on the other side of the continent, or even the other side of the planet! Whereas you, with your newfangled Internet, can be omniscient, omnipresent, ubiquitous, and a bunch of other high-falutin’ words, and know everything there is to be known about 1878 with the click of a mouse.

        There’s no need to assign motive when instead you can think, well, yes, this is what she saw, but what she saw was small. Think of it her as one those blind men trying to describe that elephant, whereas you’ve got 20/20 vision, a high-speed camera, an X-ray machine, and an electron microscope!

        So I prefer to believe that hers was a truth. But because of the limitations of the day, there were many truths and many difference experiences of the world back then.

      • I commend you on your generosity of spirit! There are so may things that can be looked at and understood from this essay. I would tend to think that that social and psychological barriers were more important then geographic ones. Ms Howland’s bio shows a person who traveled extensively.

        Government cheese is a creation 100 years newer, so I totally discounted it in my post. That the factory cheese she refers to may be a precursor to government cheese seems plausible.

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