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Cheese: Not Just for “Dummies”

A big development here at culture is our new collaboration with the best-selling For Dummies book series. Culture co-founder Lassa Skinner and I are co-authoring Cheese for Dummies, which, in addition to curtailing our blog posts, has been quite the learning experience thus far.

Our first project was producing the copy for a “Dummies” mini book on cheese, which will be available at all U.S. Target stores in August (for 99 cents, no less! Try and get a package of processed cheese for that price). The actual book is slated for September/October release (subliminal message: holiday gifts).

Now, you may assume that Lassa and I are writing this book because we know everything there is to know about cheese. You would be wrong. No one, I am convinced, knows everything there is to know about cheese, because there’s simply too damn much to know. And because, as I’ve learned, there is not a whole lot of industry regulation on certain things.

Like, for instance, what the terms “style,” “variety,” “category,” “type,” and “family” mean, as they pertain to cheese. I think most of us can agree that style refers to how a cheese has been produced and aged. The result is a cheese with a specific type of rind (or lack thereof); a defined quality that relates to its production. Let’s take ricotta, for example, which is a fresh style of cheese.

Now see, this is where we run into trouble. Because there are different types (or is that families?) of fresh cheese. Ricotta is a whey cheese, because it’s made from (all together now) whey. What about sheep’s milk ricotta versus cow’s milk? Is that a different type of cheese, or is that in the same cheese category, only a different variety? The problem is, the ACS—nor any other regulatory body, real or hypothetical—has a set standard for what these descriptives actually refer to.

To be honest, I didn’t know this until we started working on the book. I’m the wordsmith; Lassa is the cheesemonger. And once I started running into problems regarding not knowing what word refers to what aspect of cheese, I started hammering her with phone calls and emails, asking her to explain them to me.

The answer, I soon learned, is that there is no answer. Lassa was actually at the California Artisan Cheese Festival when this particular bump in the road came along, and she seized the opportunity to ask various cheese writers, distributors, mongers, and makers their opinion. Not surprisingly, no one could agree.

Needless to say, we worked it out (because that’s what you do with a publishing deadline, we have also learned). We defined things for readers by going with the most widely agreed-upon usage for these terms. I’d tell you what those are, but you’ll just have to buy the book.

Photo by Young at Heart

Laurel Miller

Laurel is a contributing editor at culture and a food and travel writer based in Austin, Texas. She also serves as editor at Edible Aspen.

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