Cheese is carefully rotted milk, an ancient domestication of microbial activities for human consumption. Humans work in concert with communities of bacteria and fungi to produce the hundreds of different kinds of cheeses, flavored by the metabolic excretions of microbes eating the sugars, proteins, and fats in the milk. The ecologies of cheese provide a fascinating model to explore the systems biology of microbial communities--like the work of Rachel Dutton and Ben Wolfe--as well as the social and political “ecologies of production” that go into making cheeses, both industrial and artisanal, today.

Anthropologist Heather Paxson’s excellent new book, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America explores the microbiopolitics of cheese production and the macropolitics of culture, economics, and policy of artisanal foods. Through participant observation in small dairy farms in Vermont, Wisconsin, and California, Paxson highlights the work that goes into making and marketing handcrafted, artisanal cheese, a “post-pastoral” and “post-Pasteurian” product that blurs the boundaries between nature and culture, urban and rural, production and consumption, and “itself exemplifies cultured nature, the product of human skill working in concert with the natural agencies of bacteria, yeasts, and molds to transform a fluid made by ruminant animals."

Handcrafted cheese brings the symbiotic practices of cheesemaking “back to the future,” reintroducing techniques that have been marginalized and largely eliminated during the modernization of industrial agriculture and food production over the past century. Through artisanal cheese, producers and consumers challenge these industrial imperatives, leading to diverse and exuberant cheeses and cheese-consumption. Historian of science Steven Shapin discusses similar tensions that industrialization of cheese has brought to French cheese cultures in a review of Camembert: A National Myth for the London Review of Books. Laws governing food safety and the economics of industrial efficiency and product consistency transformed the local production of Camembert to a centralized and highly mechanized factory process:

Robots with 20 arms now mimic traditional human actions, assuring hygiene and dependability, and, of course, reducing cost: the skilled women have largely disappeared from present-day Norman factories, the five largest of which turn out about 1.5 million Camemberts a day, employing a workforce of fewer than 500. ‘No cheese here has been touched by human hands,’ the manager of one of these factories boasts.

In handcrafted cheese, human hands are a crucial part of the process, contributing to the slow food goodness of the final product. Paxson relates a very different story of cheese production to that of the robotic Camembert factory:

Rather than follow a preprogrammed procedure, artisan cheesemakers reach into the vat, thrusting fingers into coagulating curd to ascertain when it is ready to be cut and drained from the whey. Artisanal manufacture represents an extension of the craftsperson's body into the productive process rather than its replacement by computer-programmed machinery.

For other artisan cheese makers, hands aren't important only for their interaction with the physical properties of the curd, but also for the potential microbial contribution of the human skin. A 2008 New York Times article quotes a Spanish cheesemaker on the importance of her hands to her cheese's flavor:

“The reason my cheese is so delicious,” said Ms. Amieva, without a trace of modesty, “is my hands.” She turned her meaty, callused palms over for inspection. “The natural bacteria in my skin makes the cheese more flavorful.”

The connections between the skin and cheese, both in ecologies of production and ecologies of microbes, was the primary inspiration for my project with Sissel Tolaas for Synthetic Aesthetics. Paxson's earlier work on the microbiopolitics of human and microbial cultures in raw milk cheese (PDF) also had a huge influence on us as we made our own cheeses from microbes cultured from our own skin. In The Life of Cheese, Paxson looks further at how a new awareness of the microbial inhabitants of cheese is contributing to the production and identity of artisanal cheeses.

Microbiologists and cheesemakers are increasingly interested in the microbial inhabitants of local environments and the unique communities that shape a place and its cheeses. Microbial terroir emphasizes the importance of the unique biological geography of a place, using the identity of microbes to craft an identity for a brand of cheese. While the microbial similarities of cheeses from different regions are often more striking than their differences (like the similarities between cheese and skin microbes), identifying cheeses through their bacteria is a fascinating way to get to know the microbes in our lives. Microbial knowledge can add to notions of healthfulness, like the probiotic Lactobacillus that curdles milk, or to the romantic image of a cheese, like the Brachybacterium Rachel Dutton found in the rind a Vermont cheese, "an unusual microbe that has been found in Arctic sea ice, on human skin, and in an Etruscan tomb."

Terroir is of course much more than just microbes. The epigraph to Paxson's fascinating chapter on place and taste is from Brad Kessler's Goat Song, and shows how tightly the idea of terroir is tied to artisanal cheesemaking: "Every raw-milk cheese is an artifact of the land; it carries the imprint of the earth from which it came. A cheese--even a fresh chèvre--is never just a thing to put in your mouth. It's a living piece of geography. A sense of place." Creating and cultivating a sense of place for American artisanal cheesemakers means not just the microbiology, geography, and climate of the land, but importantly, the ethics of the farm's practices, from the stewardship and maintenance of the land to the working conditions for farm employees. Paxson shows how the ethics of food and eating become embedded in the taste of good cheeses through the story of her experiences at a craft cheese tasting:

[The cheese makers] went on to describe [the] newly installed methane digester, apparently without worry that we would register suggestive hints of manure in the odor and taste of the cheese. Instead, we were meant to taste the goodness of greenhouse gas mitigation. Something is happening here to taste education...

Why does cheese taste good? It is not merely because cheese is a food rich in fat and salt, nor even that well-made artisanal cheese reflects the taste of clean milk, healty animals, and fresh pastures. The festival's taste education suggested that consumer enjoyment of a cheese can be heightened by knowing that the methods of its fabrication helped to accomplish other ends as well--in keeping agricultural land out of the hands of developers, or in the organic remediation of industrially damaged land, or in ssutaining the ability of a fourth generation to continue farming as a family. Here, eaters with "good taste" are enjoined to taste the social place of a "good" cheese--or, perhaps, the "goodness" of a place-based cheese.

The ethics and politics of locally produced foods, of organic agriculture, of American farmstead or imported raw-milk cheeses are all symbols of a very privileged kind of eating, but with their own challenges and their own complex cultural contexts. The Life of Cheese shows us that "All commodities have biographies or 'social lives' of production. In finished commodities, these backstories are obscure to consumers. In the place of labor and indirect costs, new stories are written for commodity goods through corporate branding and marketing." Moreover, uncovering the many complex practices of artisanal cheesemakers, both in cultivating microbes and cultivating a sense of place, shows that "'nature' as we know it is clearly a product of human activity," that "industrial ecologies of cheese production are no more or less 'natural' than farmstead ecologies; they are differently cultured." There is no single "right" way to produce food, no single ideal of "natural" food, but The Life of Cheese is one way to better understand that food is never just a thing to put in your mouth.