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.

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