Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese
by Gordon Edgar
Since I am an English-major cheesemaker specializing in raw milk artisan cheddar, I was delighted to find a book devoted to the subject—in fact, cheesemonger Gordon Edgar describes his book as a search for the “meaning of Cheddar.” Cheddar is the quintessential American cheese, the first to be standarized and made in factories. Over time, the traditional, round, cloth-wrapped and lard-rubbed cylinders gave way to waxed cheese (so-called rindless Cheddar) and then to quarter-ton blocks, wrapped in plastic, which could fit nicely on pallets and in warehouses. Then came Joseph Kraft who used the rindless Cheddar to make processed American cheese—heated, emulsified and formed into a “homogeneous plastic mass” with infinite shelf life. The next morph brought us Velveeta, the chief ingredient in a winning mac-and-cheese contest that Edgar describes as a prelude to his search for the meaning of Cheddar.
If cheesemaking is a ritual, Cheddar making is the most ritualistic of rituals: heat milk to just the right temperature (about 90 degrees), add cultures, stir gently, add rennet, let sit until gel is just right, cut curds, let them “heal” (fall to the bottom), “scald” (heat slowly to 102 degrees), drain whey, pile curds on both sides of the vat (great exercise for back muscles), cut into wedges (called cheddars), turn wedges every ten minutes for an hour or more (called cheddaring), run cheddars through a peg mill to shred, hand mix salt in three batches, pile into cloth-lined molds (called truckles), put in a press for one-half hour, remove from press and pull up cloth, return to press and leave overnight, remove from press, remove from truckles and transfer to aging room, wash truckles, next day rub with lard, feed whey to pigs, leave (the cheese) six months to two years, turning weekly. (The industrial method: “press button, then watch someone take the finished cheddar off the conveyor belt a while later,” powder whey, sell to body builders.)
So Cheddar is the most time-consuming, exacting cheese you can make—and the most industrialized cheese on the planet. I can’t say that I have found the meaning of Cheddar during the long ritual of Cheddar-making, but it does give you lots of time to consider life’s persistent questions—like whether the word “Cheddar” and the word “wedge” come from the same linguistic root.
I enjoyed this book from cover to cover—plus I learned a great new word: turophile.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2015