A History of Cheese and
Its Place in Western Civilization

By Paul S. Kindstedt

Chelsea Green. 253 pp. $24.95

‘Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization’ by Paul Kindstedt (Chelsea Green Publishing)

The long arc of human history has produced astonishing developments in technology, medicine, culture and many other facets of life. Focusing on one such element and tracing its progression through the centuries can be a risky proposition, and it helps if you have a subject that matters in everyday life. Let’s say cheese.

Paul S. Kindstedt’s new book focuses on that food, which has been with us for eons. Cheese was firmly entrenched in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt; the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage would, among other effects, “influence cheesemaking for centuries to come”; cheesemaking was one of many factors causing colonists in New England to rely heavily on slave labor. Kindstedt points out that cheese made in Rhode Island was sent to the West Indies in exchange for molasses, which was used to make rum in New England, and the rum, in turn, was used to purchase slaves.

Cheese and Culture” is billed as a history of cheese, which doesn’t really do the book justice. Kindstedt gives ample context for each development. The star dairy product will disappear for pages at a time while he lays the groundwork for the next shift in methodology or emergence of a new cheese making region. We also learn, too briefly, about how dairymaids dominated cheese making for centuries, to the extent that dairywomen were caretakers of “secret knowledge” passed down from generation to generation.

The book emerged from a class Kindstedt teaches at the University of Vermont. There are times when it comes across as more of an academic work than a flowing narrative. Your interest in this book will probably correlate to your interest in history and, of course, cheese. But it’s hard not to enjoy a book that pauses to explore the cheesemaking technique of the cyclops in Homer’s “Odyssey.”

Mark Berman