The history of America’s favorite cheese

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Dunbarton Blue was a cheese that almost never existed.

Chris Roelli, fresh out of college and ready to take over the family business, looked forward to the challenge of making cheddar like his father and grandfather had. His dad knew about his cheese-making aspirations. But rather than handing over the reins, he shut down the family’s factory. Why would a multi-generation cheese maker do that to his son?

His reaction to Chris’s interest in cheddar-making can tell us a lot about the US food system, as well as about the newest chapter in the history of cheddar. Why are people eating a lot more cheese, made in fewer locations, from the milk of increasingly larger-sized herds? And why is it so hard for a small-scale cheesemaker to make a living—so hard, in fact, that Mr. Roelli felt the need to make sure his son pursued a different vocation?

Not too long ago, relatively speaking, things were quite different. Most cheddar makers in the immediate post-WWII period had made a good living selling to the large companies such as Kraft, Borden, and Armour. Those big national brands had regional producers, sometimes a lot of them, contracted to make their cheese to meet demand. Then came the “Cheddarpocalypse,” a day when somewhere between fifty and eighty small cheddar factories in the Midwest were told—with thirty days notice—that their cheese would no longer be purchased. This notice to small producers was repeated throughout the nation as national brands built large cheese factories. No longer could a family cheesemaker survive by making blocks of cheddar alone.

How did this happen? In the early 20th century, viewing the “farm as factory” was an obvious metaphor for improving the food system, designed to show that farmers needed to see the farm as an integrated system in order for it to work. In the era when “factory” did not evoke the image of ecological destruction, this made a lot more sense, and, if one can step back into those old shoes, it still does.

Breaking up the curd at Montgomery Cheddar, Somerset, England. Photo credit: Mark Pickthall (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But though the “farm as factory” was a metaphor at first, the “factory farm” would become a reality decades later. As every aspect of agriculture was subject to change in the name of efficiency, even the farm itself came under scrutiny. If the goal of the wedding of scientific management to farming was to lower the price of protein, that goal had been achieved. Ironically, the logic of “farm as factory” also led to the realization that farmers themselves—and the local cheesemakers—were expendable.

It’s not hard to see the economic problem that faced small cheesemakers like the Roellis. Unless they are farmstead producers, cheesemakers buy the milk they need to make cheese, but the cheese they make with it needs to age. So while the milk bill needs to get paid, the cheese sits around, costing money in utilities for refrigeration until it is mature enough to be sold. Many cheesemakers need to make young cheeses in order to get a quick return on their investment and pay off the bills that are owed. However, making a young, mild cheddar—a cheese that could be sold relatively quickly—became a volume game after the Cheddarpocalypse, when bigger, more efficient factories became the norm.

Since cheddar is traded as a commodity, producers became tied into the pricing system. If you are only making a penny or two per pound and only producing a thousand pounds of cheese a day, you are going to have a hard time feeding your family anything but cheese on that $10 or $20 a day. If, however, you are on the other end of the spectrum and producing one million pounds of cheese a day, you’ll probably be doing quite well.

Chris Roelli’s father and grandfather, not wanting to condemn Chris to a futile pursuit, made a clearly rational decision to stop producing cheese, one that many other cheesemakers had already made. There was no way to compete with the Krafts of the world, so instead of saddling his son with a business that was sure to fail, Chris’s father locked the doors. But Chris Roelli had other ideas. Slowly Roelli developed, through trial and error, one of the most original cheeses made in this country in the last century, a cheddar-blue that combines the best of those two worlds. One only made possible through the (re)discovery of the beauty of inefficiency.

The cows behind cheddar, grazing at North Cadbury Court, Somerset, England. Photo by Simran Sethi. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The Roellis use only milk from one farm for the Dunbarton Blue and pay a premium for its high quality. At large factories, the technology of today allows the process—everything from the pumping of milk to the packaging of the cheese—to be controlled by computers and button-pushers, never coming into contact with humans. But at the Roellis’ plant, they make cheese in the traditional way. As Roelli says, “Like it or not, my two hands touch every wheel.”

Dunbarton Blue is uncommon in taste but absolutely typical in the way it underscores the dramatic difference between traditionally made and factory-made cheese. On the one hand you have a family business, in the same area for 100 years, buying local high-quality milk that they use to make small batches of cheese that is then aged until deemed high enough in quality for sale. On the other hand, a large company buys milk as cheaply as possible and creates a huge volume of cheese using a pre-programmed, mechanical process that does not allow for individual input. The cheese is then sealed and sold as quickly as possible.

Of course, the cheese produced by machines and button-pushers is seen as the norm, and to most folks, spending anything more is seen as an extravagant indulgence. In a factory-food economy, many people simply do not have the choice to support people more like themselves—regular folks trying to make a living—because it would cost them money they don’t have. In a de-industrialized and de-agriculturalized nation, this irony is widening.

Still, despite his dad’s best efforts Chris Roelli has found a way to make a small-scale cheddar-style cheese in this day and age without going broke. That in itself is a remarkable feat in the 21st century.

Gordon Edgar is the author of two cheese books: Cheesemonger (2010) and Cheddar
(2015).  He has worked behind a cheese counter since 1994. This excerpt is adapted
from Gordon Edgar’s book Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic
Cheese (Chelsea Green, 2015) and is printed with permission from the publisher.