Monday, June 23, 2008

Big Cheddar or small cheddar?

Cheddar is, of course, a big cheese, both in terms of size and worldwide popularity, but should it be spelled with a big C or a little c?

I can't decide.

Initially, once I had given this issue my full consideration and no longer wanted to switch indiscriminately between both spellings, I opted for a capital C. My guides for spelling it this way were reputable: the New York Times, Fine Cooking, and from Cheddar's country of origin, the Oxford English Dictionary. How can you go wrong with them?

But a friend, to whom I showed some of my writing about Cheddar cheese, curtly dismissed this spelling, along with most of my writing. She pulls no punches. As director of publications for a prestigious academic press, she works with top American scholars in the fields of economics and sociology. With these credentials, as well as glowing references from her authors, she's definitely a reputable source when it comes to proper spelling.

I usually defer to her, but I stuck to my guns. Cheddar was to remain capitalized, and I had other sources to back me up. After all, my friend doesn't work with food writers. Her authors bring up food only in the grim context of the sociology of poverty. If they're discussing government cheese, or "Pasteurized Process American Cheese for Use in Domestic Programs," cheddar should probably remain lowercase, as in blocks of cheddar cheese.

But then I caved to another trusty source, one that I consult almost daily at work and have pretty much memorized, the Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed. They don't capitalize anything: the seasons and the two solstices; golden retrievers; the big bang theory; cold war; and professional titles like director of publications, the pope, the president of the United States, and the queen of England—they all get the lowercase treatment. If the queen of England isn't capitalized, how can her sovereign nation's cheese be?

Also pulling me in a lower direction was the Association of Food Journalists' FOODSPELL, their "guide to style and spelling for food terms, both common and exotic." For them, cheddar is lowercase. But so is champagne and camembert. If left up to me, I would capitalize camembert since it's a name-protected cheese. Even Blogger's spell check wants to capitalize camembert, underlining the lowercase spelling in red every time I write it this way. AFJ's reasoning for the lowercase spelling is to "deflate the snootiness unwarranted capitals represent." But then why do they capitalize Calvados (an apple brandy made in the Normandy area of France) and Emmentaler cheese (a variety of Swiss cheese from the Emmental Valley)? Are these food products worthy of snootiness? I would understand if they capitalized a brandy made from pears. A noble pear would warrant snootiness.

In a quandary like this, I usually turn to Webster's to settle the score. They're the reason why I capitalize Web site and write it as two words and why I hyphenate on-line. But they don't come down one way or the other about cheddar. Their entry is lowercase, but they say that cheddar is often capitalized. Thanks for nothing, Webster's!

I suppose I could take the middle ground put forward by the independent food writer Edward Behr, of the Art of Eating. He capitalizes Cheddar when referring to proper English, clothbound Cheddars made in the southwest of England. All other cheddars, whether clothbound or plastic wrapped, are kept lowercase.

But Behr's distinction gets too complicated and I like absolutes. I was a Latin teacher after all. What to do? I still don't know. I guess I'll leave it up to my (potential) editors and their house style. Ah, the easy way out.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cheddar, Murray, and Me

First, there were three: a Vermont classic (either Grafton or Shelburne Farms), cheap and yellow block cheese, and some mouth-puckering stuff from north of the border, whose distributor has long been forgotten. Then, a few years later, came the English invasion of clothbound, farmstead Cheddars. And now the Americans, in the midst of a cheese revolution, handcraft their own.

Since the early 1990s a wide range of Cheddar cheese has been sold at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. I haven't been shopping at Murray's all that time (I didn't move to New York until 1996), but owner Rob Kaufelt knows and remembers which Cheddars have been coming in and out of his cheese shop on Bleecker Street for the past 15 years.

What I find most intriguing about Rob's selection of Cheddars over the years is that they clearly reflect America's maturing taste for good food. In the early 1990s, we wanted what we knew and we wanted it cheap. If we wanted something new back then, it had to knock our socks off and slam us to the ground. Subtle flavors weren't in the picture. By the mid 1990s, we came to realize that superior food didn't come cheaply from factories and that to have high-quality cheeses we had to pay a higher price for them. This opened the door for the complex--and expensive--clothbound Cheddars (e.g., Keen's and Montogomery's) to leave Greenwich Mean Time and enter Greenwich Village. Won over by the novel and nuanced taste of traditionally made cheese, Americans gave farmstead cheeses that were made in their own time zones a shot, and now we find ourselves searching for regional cheeses, like the Cheddars made by the Amish, which somehow make their way to NYC. Do they travel by horse and buggy?

What new Cheddars will find their way to Murray's in the next few years, by truck, van, or buggy? It may seem like we have reached the summit of our knowledge about exceptional food, but there's always something new to be had and learned. Rob suspects that what's around the corner is right under our noses, like the Cheddars being made today by small producers in Wisconsin, which are going to the big guys for mass distribution, but could be made on a small scale. Smaller usually means better. Or maybe these Wisconsin Cheddars will stay big, but find a different market. Rob hopes that the real cheeses of Wisconsin will end up on Big Macs one day and replace the processed stuff. Rob doesn't know why this isn't the case now.

Well, he does know. We all know. It's the issue of big business. Despite what we have learned about good food, most of us still want our food familiar and cheap, and this means mass-produced food from factories. But when we see that this might be doing us--our health, our environment-- in, we may finally change this mode of production around.

And when things change, Cheddar will still be there. It always is.