Certain corners of the food world accumulate cranky high priests and priestesses, full of solemn proclamations and self-serious warnings about the correct way to make, buy or describe the things we love. Start a conversation about wine or coffee with the wrong person and get ready for a lecture packed with pseudo-science, judgmental snobbery and personal observations passed off as industry gospel.
Cheese fanatics can be as bad as any other kind, and many a tedious tome has exacerbated the situation, casting drab shadows where sunlight belongs. And then there are books like “It’s Not You, It’s Brie,” by Kirstin Jackson. It elegantly wedges through the tedious jargon and pomp of cheese culture.
Wielding simile and metaphor like a pair of nunchucks (she compares one strong cheese to “a mom whose kid was just bullied” and another to an odoriferous “workout T-shirt”), Jackson leads the reader into the live culture of American cheese in a manner so painless as to be actively pleasurable. Her approach is to quickly and clearly define a broad type of cheese, such as Alpine or Pasta Filata, and then illuminate three specific cheeses within that class. In the process, she shares cheesemaker biographies, farm descriptions, animal stories, pairings, tasting notes and recipes.
From Jackson, we learn about showboat superstars such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve (“Name it as your favorite domestic cheese in France and you’ll be taught the handshake that will allow you into the most exclusive underground fromage salons in Paris”) from Dodgeville, Wis., and cheeses hailing from unexpected states such as Texas and New Jersey. The information is delivered with wit, economy and precision, and the author never falls back on lazy generalizations. Instead, these chapters are backed by reportage and a deep library of tastes and insights that make for a sharp snapshot of the current domestic cheese scene in all its diverse and anarchic glory.
Necessarily, “It’s Not You” has some holes. Jackson’s approach leaves many worthy cheeses and cheesemakers unexamined, and if you’ve got a personal favorite, it may well have been left by the wayside. (Alas, I was rooting for Hook’s 15-year-old cheddar.) But that’s not Jackson’s shortcoming; it’s a failure of the publishing world. If there’s any spare lactic justice floating around the universe, some benevolent cheese baron will bankroll Jackson to undertake an encyclopedic exploration of the hundreds of other worthy artisan cheeses that dot the contemporary American landscape.
Norton is the author of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin” and edits the Heavy Table, an online journal of Upper Midwestern food.