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What's Behind Our Culture's Obsession with Artisan Cheese

Photo by Dominick Reuter, via MIT News

It’s an understatement to say that cheese holds a special place in Wisconsin’s ethos. It also holds a special place in Wisconsin’s economy. The latest data from the US Department of Agriculture shows that the state produced 2.6 billion pounds of cheese in 2011. Just as significantly, the percentage of that which is specialty cheese has increased to 22 percent.

While some of that production is at an industrial level, artisan cheese-making is also on the rise, both around the country, and here in Wisconsin. Anthropologist HeatherPaxsonwondered what is behind the surge in the number of artisan cheesemakers, especially in Wisconsin, New England, and California.

She writes about what she learned in the new book, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America.

"Those of us who grew up with supermarket plastic-wrapped cheeses tend to expect a cheddar to taste like the cheddar we had last week. So variability is part of the artisan process and part of the artisan value, but only to a point." -author/anthropologist Heather Paxson

Paxson is an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.