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.