A recent trip to Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, NY leaves me pondering the binary relationship between inside and outside – in this case, between the cheese-room and the barnyard. Colin McGrath, cheese-maker at the farm, appropriately starts the tour of the dairy in the open-air, within sight of the cows (Jerseys, Normandes, and Swiss). As we move closer to the cheese-room, it becomes increasingly apparent that the functional connection between the bucolic domain of the cows and the world of the cheese-maker in his sterilized lab reveals cheesemaking as a symbolic act – the framing and crafting of nature.
Milk has not always been the object of attack by nutritionists and animal activists. Hundreds of years before vegans were condemning dairy products as unhealthful industrialized commodities, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th-century French philosopher and arguably the first ecologist and environmentalist, was praising the nutritious and psychological properties of milk and its ability to reconnect people with nature. Throughout his writings, from Émile, or On Education to his Confessions, dairy is depicted not only as a building block of humanity but also as a vegetal fruit-like figure within his idealized bucolic literary scenes.
It’s not by mere chance that Rousseau starts off his masterpiece on the “art of education,” Émile, or On Education, with a tribute to breast milk and maternity (still a modern concept in the 18th century). He explains the profound impact of breastfeeding on infants, affirming that it intensifies the mother–child bond, and therefore the overall harmony of the family which he views as a fundamental unit of civilization.
As Thanksgiving quickly approaches, I have been thinking about the role of cheese in this traditional feast. It’s a particularly heavy late-afternoon repast with nearly every type of food one can imagine: turkey with gravy, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, roasted squash, cauliflower, chestnuts, parsnips, carrots, various high-starch side-dishes, including all sorts of potatoes, and, of course many different pies, like sweet potato pie and pumpkin pie. The list seems endless. At the end of this culinary hedonistic celebration, who has an appetite for a cheese course? I certainly don’t.
Being the cheese enthusiast that I am, it’s impossible to imagine a feast of gastronomic pleasures without fromage. However, the absence of a dedicated course does not mean that cheese isn’t part of the feast. Indeed, in dishes, like chestnut soup, acorn squash puree, and pumpkin dip, cheese hardly takes a backseat role.