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Steve Ehlers, unsung hero of cheese.

This is my favorite picture of Steve Ehlers (far right), taken at the Burlington ACS. Maybe not the most flattering, but one which really captured the nature of the ACS back in those days. I like to call it “The pageantry of the ACS awards ceremony.”

Steve Ehlers was pretty much the first cheese person I met outside of California when I started going to cheese conferences. Many California folks from the slightly earlier generation of the American cheese renaissance helped me develop my practical knowledge, taste, and historical interest in cheese – people like Kathleen Shannon Finn, Andrea London, Ig Vella, Jennifer Bice, Mary Keehn, Judy and Charlie Creighton, Dan Strongin… But Steve was probably the first to show this interested but insecure Californian that he could be part of the cheese world on a larger level.

He welcomed me into the American Cheese Society. I don’t remember how we first met – probably when I volunteered to help prepare cheeses for judging at the first Louisville ACS – but I was feeling overwhelmed being at an event where everyone seemed to know each other and I was one of the youngest people there. Back in those days, the ACS conferences were only a couple hundred people and I wasn’t sure I could fit in with the group or, honestly if I wanted to.

Steve and I hit it off right away. We had common interests in the world outside of cheese, which always helps, but I don’t know if I have ever met a more friendly supportive person. Later I watched him do the same with plenty of other new cheese folks. He easily could have been too busy – running a shop, being on the ACS board – but he always made time for people. He really exemplified everything I love about the artisan cheese world: friendly, smart, willing to share practical knowledge and oral history, encouraging, disapproving of pretension, non-self aggrandizing, and always seeking out ways to help people in our community and cheesemakers having a hard time. These are the qualities that helped make me decide that I could find a home in the world of cheese. Steve is not the only person I can thank for that, but he’s on a short list.

The funniest moment I can remember with Steve, when I really learned he was one of my people, might not be funny to you. Steve and I shared an interest in history and the history of radical political movements of the ‘60s. His Facebook icon – not that he ever Facebooked (smart man) — was this iconic picture from the rebellion of Paris ’68.

So we were hanging out at a Sheana Davis event during Fancy Food week in San Francisco and I introduced him to a local cheese sales rep. Upon learning Steve lived in Milwaukee, the rep said, “Oh, I have relatives in Wisconsin. My cousin is a weatherman in Madison.” Steve and I started laughing uncontrollably and the rep is probably still trying to figure out what was so funny, not knowing that when we hear Madison and weatherman together in a sentence, we both hear it with a capital W.

We always bonded over being some of the few people at ACS in cheese retail or distributing that stayed in the same job for more than 20 years. It’s a small club. Me, Juliana and Alma from the Pasta Shop, Helder from Zuercher, Patty and Steve from Larry’s Market and a few others… Going to Larry’s was something I did every time I went to Milwaukee. It’s a small but mighty place and it always feels like a home away from home.

I can only imagine what his family and closer friends must be going through because Steve was one of those people that just brightened up every room and every interaction. He is a real unsung hero of the American cheese renaissance. It’s actually really hard for me to imagine our community without him.

I am going to miss Steve a lot. And I know I am not the only one.

(For a more detailed obituary of Steve, please see Karen Herzog’s great tribute here)

Special Cheddar Class!!

I know you are used to getting me for free.  That’s cool and all — I wouldn’t be touring the SFPL if it wasn’t — but actual intensive cheese classes have their place.

My next local cheese event is at the Cheese School on April 19 and I am super excited about this.  We will taste a number of cheddars —  various ages, from nearby and far away — that show the breadth of styles of this seemingly ubiquitous cheese. These cheddars will represent the history of the America’s most popular cheese for 150 years and we get into why cheddar has changed so much, how it is thought of in different regions of the country, and why cheddar is a great way to look into the evolution of the US food system.

Oh and we are eating the cheddars with beer! Go to the Cheese School site and buy your ticket. April 19!


Pacific Northwest, Here I Come

Can’t wait to see you all up in the Pacific Northwest.  Unfortunately I couldn’t pull off as long a trip as I wanted to, but I will be in Seattle, Portland, and Central Point this week. Tell your friends!

March 19 – Central Point, OR Oregon Cheese Festival . I will be  selling books at the Fest on the 19th! Tickets needed to Festival, see link.

March 20 – Portland, OR Reading Frenzy,3628 N Mississippi Ave, Portland, OR 97227.  5PM. Free.

March 21 – Seattle, WA Elliott Bay Book Co. , 1521 Tenth Avenue, Seattle,WA 98122. 7 PM.  Cheese will be provided by Central Co-op. Free.


Cheddar is now annotated!

I will probably add more pics as I find them, but I just finished annotating every chapter of Cheddar with pictures.  Most of them are my own, taken while visiting cheesemakers and landmarks searching for the meaning of cheddar.

Chapter-by-chapter list is at the bottom of this page check ’em all out at once, or click the appropriate chapter as you read along.


Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone! I celebrated New Year’s Eve by counting cheese and falling asleep early. Yep, still living the dream…

Just wanted to let you know that I am working on a fun project that I hope to have up by the end of January. I’m adding pictures of people, places, and cheeses that I wrote about in Cheddar. They will be organized by chapter so you can check them out as you read or re-read.

So, do you want to see that “cheese replica” I was so disappointed in? See curds being milled?  See what some of the best cheddar-makers in the country look like?  See my professional-quality picture of the carousel inside House on the Rock that I took using tricks I learned while working at a one-hour lab 25 years ago?  Come back in about a month. It’s gonna be awesome.

P.S.  I almost forgot… check out my radio interview on Good Food with Evan Kleiman. It’s airing as I type this!

Urgent action needed to help save raw milk cheese

Sorry, too busy with the Thanksgiving rush to write something myself, but here is the word from Jasper Hill folks who have been working diligently on this issue:



Dear Friends in Cheese!

Many of you may remember the debacle of 2014 involving FDA’s flip-flopping position on the use of wooden shelving in the maturation of cheese in which a public outcry and a social media backlash forced FDA to withdraw its ludicrous and unscientific position on the matter.  Well FDA has been at it again, this time by establishing microbiological criteria that make the production and sale of some raw-milk cheeses nearly impossible. FDA quietly changed the microbiological criteria for strains of non-toxigenic bacteria from 10,000 colony forming units (CFU) per gram to less than 10, effectively regulating many raw-milk cheeses out of the market. You may have noticed that Roquefort, Tomme D’Savoie and other special French and Italian cheeses have been missing from counters across the country (or have been replaced by pasteurized versions of themselves…). Well they are coming for domestic cheeses next.

The rub here is that there is no public health benefit to these new rules. Instead, many delicious cheeses that have long traditions and excellent food safety records may disappear from American cheese counters. This may seem like an esoteric issue, but it is a watershed moment for the future of artisan cheesemaking in the US. The rule making and regulations that are promulgated now will shape our industry for decades to come. WE NEED YOUR HELP….!

The Vermont Congressional Delegation has taken the lead in circulating a letter in both chambers of the US Congress as a first step in addressing the issue with FDA. Find linked sample letters, and the letter the Vermont delegation is circulating in congress right now.

Why I write cheese books

Since I am in that limbo-land between the time of my book being finished — in terms of writing and editing – and the book actually being printed, I’ve been thinking about why I write cheese books.

I am more of a brooder than a quick, witty retort kind of guy. I like to mull things over for awhile, ask questions, read things… and for me the most effective way of thinking things through is to try and write about them. True, some half baked thoughts, missteps, dead ends and embarrassments may come first (in 2015 we usually call these “facebook posts.”) But eventually – at least I hope – coherency emerges, thoughts crystalize, I can start to say something that makes sense.

While I suppose I am a professional writer – I’ve sold two books (once twice) and numerous articles – it is not my main source of income. That gives me a lot of latitude with what I choose to write. Very, very early on with
Cheesemonger — only about 50 draft pages done — I sent it to an agent (not my current agent) because of a personal connection. I wasn’t really ready, and I should have waited, but the response I got was telling. Basically, if I would remove all the monger stories the agent would possibly be willing to sell it as a photo-based coffee table book.

That’s cool. Heck, it probably would have been more profitable. But it’s not why I was writing. My cheese writing “career” started by accident. I had a LiveJournal* and only sporadically mentioned my day job. However, I realized than whenever I would make a cheese post, my comments section would explode. One day I made the mistake of asking if people had any cheese questions. Within about a half hour I had more than 50 questions. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t have the time to answer all those! I deleted the post.

But this outpouring of cheese questions showed me that there was need for more cheese writing. This was 2003 or so. There weren’t many cheese books back then. Indeed, I remember actually knowing the release dates and going to the book store to buy multiple copies of books by Steve Jenkins, Janet Fletcher, and Laura Werlin when they came out. It was tradition in our department that when someone found a new cheese book they would buy as many as they could and donate one to the department and then share them with everybody else. Even with these books though, there was still a thirst for cheese knowledge online. I started writing some LJ posts for fun and to learn more. I sought to answer the questions I was continually being asked, and I craved having a longer conversation about cheese than was usually possible over the cheese counter.

Surprisingly, and this is why Cheesemonger was written the way it was, I also found there was almost as much interest in the job as the cheese. Relaying the workplace realities of someone working 40-some hours a week with cheese was my point: the conversations, the stories, the ironies, the compromises, and putting realities to the mysteries of cheese — not just the specific factoids and statistics that others could provide (and that might be out of date within a year or two) — made writing the book interesting.

I was taken aback when Cheesemonger came out and I found out that wasn’t the way a lot of people write. In the food world especially, I was asked more than once how I went about hiring a ghostwriter.** It seems there is a non-insignificant minority of “readers” who think you would only “write” a book in order to brand yourself. I was just happy someone wanted to publish it.

cheddar w cheese

Fast forward to the last few years. The cheese world has changed a lot. So has the internet. You can actually find reasonably good information on most cheeses online if you know where to look. So many readable, yet technical, books exist now*** that I am absolutely relieved of any responsibility to write at great length about the technical details of cheesemaking. Best of all, people started using the word cheesemonger unironically!

On a road trip with the smartest person I know (my wife Laurie), we started talking about cheese and I realized that there was another cheese mystery I wanted to unravel. Why, when I started working in cheese in 1994, was American-made cheese the object of ridicule? I knew that there had been regional traditions of cheesemaking and long time cheese families. Why did they make the cheeses they do? Why did people who wanted fancy cheese demand imports? Why couldn’t Americans produce cheese as good as the Europeans? Is liking fancy cheese just too snobby for the regular American?

So many questions… I realized that the key to understanding American cheese would be understanding cheddar, America’s most popular cheese for 150 years. Cheddar lead to the industrialization of cheese, it took women out of the make-rooms, and it is beloved just about everywhere in this country in one or more of its many forms: the traditional cloth-bound wheel, the plastic-sealed block, or processed, emulsified, “American” single.

And then I spent a couple of years, working on this idea, on and off. Reading and visiting. Chatting and interviewing. Writing and deleting. And after awhile I realized that not only was cheddar important for the reasons mentioned above, but cheddar also helped usher back in the cheese renaissance we are currently enjoying and which will forever change the reputation of American-made cheese. Good idea Laurie!

There’s a lot more than that in Cheddar (the book) – cheese road trip stories, tasting notes, cheddar factory poetry – but it started because I realized that even though I have worked with cheese for most of my adult life, I didn’t know enough about the most important cheese in the country. I also feel that writing is, in many ways, my duty. I am rooted in the realities of the co-op in which I work and the city in which I live. In a country that can be very divided along rural/urban lines I am lucky that my job gives me the opportunity to interact with people who live in very different places. If I am going to sell cheese from these places — which is where food comes from after all – I also feel the need to add what I can to the complexity of the issues and not just participate in trendy consumer shorthand that comes easily – and can sometimes take over – in a busy, urban grocery environment.

Writing is my offering back to the cheese community that has nourished me in many ways. Writing is about answering my own questions while hoping those questions are interesting to others. Writing is my attempt to have a longer conversation than is possible over the cheese counter during the realities of a retail interaction. This is why I write cheese books.

*LiveJournal was a community-based, semi-private, blogging platform that was state-of-the-art, pre-facebook.
**Now, none of these people had read my book. I assume they just looked at me and decided I couldn’t write one and must have hired someone. I consider this a slight against the honorable profession of ghost-writing. How did they know my book wasn’t terrible?
***Max McCallman/David Gibbons, Gianaclis Caldwell, Paul Kindstedt, etc. just to name a few authors, all with multiple books.