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Cheese and Culture is a “tour de force”

Posted Mar 16 2012 9:10am

The first review of Paul Kindstedt’s Cheese and Culture is in, from his colleague Cathy Donnelly at the University of Vermont.

When Ben Watson from Chelsea Green asked if I would review Cheese and Culture , I felt as if I had been given a gift. I have been most fortunate to enjoy a lengthy career working alongside my esteemed and academically talented colleague Paul Kindstedt. Only a true scholar could weave together the complexity of history, anthropology, language, geography, religion and science to inform and enlighten our understanding of the evolution of cheese making throughout the millennia. Kindstedt, first and foremost with his discerning scientific mind, helps historians inform the heretofore mysteries in the cheese making continuum. My favorite part of the narrative was reading the reasoning used by Paul when historical explanations fell short and defied scientific explanation. For instance, statements such as “cheese of the fig tree” were dismissed as nonsensical by Harry Hofffner in his translations of descriptions of fresh cheeses made in Turkey by the Hittite’s (1400 B.C.)  This statement is instead seen by Kindstedt as scientific documentation of rennet usage in cheese making by early civilizations. Similarly, the early origins of butter making from sheep milk are reasoned by Kindstedt using his scientific knowledge and logic. Kindstedt’s painstakingly researched account of cheese and culture will serve as a central reference for individuals passionate about food, food history and cheese. This work is a tour de force which can only emerge from the most deeply thoughtful intellectuals. This is the culmination of his scholarly career, where all of his knowledge and personal interests have intersected to produce a text which only he could so richly author. For those individuals who enjoy cheese for its sensory character, a read of this book will elevate cheese enjoyment to a whole new intellectual level. Students at the University of Vermont are most fortunate to be able to participate in Paul’s course which accompanies this book. Does dissemination of such rich and historical knowledge facilitate a newfound enjoyment and appreciation of cheese? I can’t wait to find out.

Kindstedt challenges previously held theories about cheese making practices and origins. For instance, he makes a compelling case which proposes that bandage wrapping of Cheddar cheese actually originated in the U.S. as opposed to England. He also weaves the unfortunate history of slavery and the role of slaves in cheese making within the U.S. He ends this treatise back in New England and Vermont and challenges all of us living in our global society to think of where cheese making is headed in the U.S. in the future. The rebirth of the U.S. artisan cheese movement gives us all hope, and this book illustrates how this movement has been richly informed by the deep cultural and historical origins of cheese making.

The historical literature, some of which equates barbarianism with the lack of cheese making knowledge and expertise, resonates today as we appreciate refinements which have expanded centuries old traditions of cheese making. Where gaps in knowledge remain, I hope this marvelous work will spur new inquiry by the next generation of food system scholars. This would be a fitting legacy for this remarkable effort documented by Paul.

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