Heather Paxson on "The Life of Cheese: Negotiating the Value of an Unfinished Commodity"

Heather Paxson http://web.mit.edu/anthropology/people/faculty/paxson.html.
Heather Paxson


On Thursday April 23, Heather Paxson, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a cheese tasting and Class of 1960 Scholars lecture to the Williams Community about her ethnographic work on cheese makers. With a B.A. in Anthropology from Haverford College, M.A., and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Stanford University, Paxson began her anthropological work in the 1990s in Greece, where she studied reproduction and family planning. This research led to her first book, Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Modern Greece (University of California Press, 2004). When she returned to the states, she moved to New York City, frequenting her local artisanal cheese shop. Becoming interested in the producers of the products, Paxson began an ethnographical study of these cheese makers that is presented in her second book, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (University of California Press, 2012). Paxson currently lives in the Boston area and frequents her local Cambridge cheese shop, Formaggio Kitchen.

Paxson’s 1960 Scholars event started with a pre-talk cheese tasting. Attendees sampled three local cheeses: Berlberg, a raw milk cheese from Berle Farm in Hoosick, New York, Verano, a sheep’s milk cheese from Vermont Shepherd in Putney, Vermont, and Battenkill Brebis from 3-corner Field Farm in Shushan, New York.

After trying the delicious cheeses, Paxson began her presentation by introducing some of the reasons why these cheese makers pursue the craft. She found that some enjoy the independent rural living conducive to cheese creation while others are generational dairy farmers who view cheese as a value-added product. Many identify primarily as artisans, some simply love cheese and food, but others view cheese as merely a means to an economic end. Though cheese makers may pursue the activity based on pure enjoyment or pure utility, they are united demographical as a group of largely well-educated, middle-aged white folks.

In her interviews, Paxson discusses how to live a good life, and what a good life means to these cheese makers. She finds that producers believe it must be personally meaningful and socially worthwhile; such goals inherent in the pursuit of artisanal cheese making. Yet sustaining these values depending on selling the cheese, on “making values valuable.” Consumers often place these cheese producers on “a moral pedestal they did not erect,” imbuing their work with deep ecologies of sentiment. Yet creating cheese for sale is not all idealization and symbolism, as cheese production for many has, in part, inherently economic aims.

This cheese creation for sale is a main concern of Paxson’s and where her concept of cheese as an “unfinished community” enters. Unlike plastic-wrapped cheddar cheese, artisan cheese is incredibly variable and difficult to stabilize at the “moment of exchange.” In Paxson’s words, its value and worth is still under construction.

To illustrate this tension between idealization and economics and the differences between artisan versus conventional cheese production, Paxson presented the stories of some of the cheese producers she has interviewed, most of whom produce less than 10,000 pounds of cheese a year.

She described creation process of the Twig Farm Square Cheese. The producers at Twig Farm in West Cornwall, Vermont work with minimally modified goat milk from April to July and have to work to make the cheese consistent constantly. Having an adept feel for the curd is essential to produce the desired cheese. Vermont Shepard, formerly Major Farm, in Westminster, Vermont makes the raw milk cheeses Verano and Inverno (formerly both just called Vermont Sheppard), alternatively with the seasons. The cheese is bathed overnight in a salty rine bath. Additionally, many producers now utilize the common resource of the Cellars of Jasper Hill, a communal cheese-ageing facility that allows for massive amount of these individual-produced cheeses to be aged correctly and then shipped to retailers.

These stories and others illustrated broad themes about the modern artisanal cheese industry as a distinctly 21st century, modern pursuit. Many might consider cheese making as a traditional, nostalgic endeavor, but, for example, the hygiene of this post-pasteurian cheese production is super modern. As one producer said, “80 percent of cheese making is cleaning up.”

Additionally, this distinctly modern labor must confront economic necessities and marketing challenges, so that these producers can both make a living and a life. Paxson described that many producers must learn “packaging skills,” and many choose to brand themselves through their personal stories. Part of the value added to the product for consumers is the narrative. For example, for Vermont Sheppard, their branding effort includes how they had failed in the past.

Such stories enhance the “ecologies of sentiment” surrounding artisan cheeses and the fact that the consumer and producer are “trading on sentiment.” Paxson’s talk revealed that much of the industry is grounded in values, for the producer and the product, and that ”the value for these values lies in their lack of equivalence.” In a sense, cheese making today, as Paxson said,” is “making the personal profitable,” turning personal stories into economic gain.

Paxson’s ethnographies provide a unique and nuanced perspective into the American artisanal cheese industry. The diversity of producers, of their goals, motives, and values, is as wide as the range of cheese they create. By giving a tasting of the cheeses and discussing the stories behind the flavors, Paxson enlightened the audience to the hidden world of cheese production. By the end of the evening, the cheeses from the tasting suddenly were now rich vessels of story, life, and the efforts of their absent cheese makers.

By Sara Clark ’15

To learn more about Paxson and her work, please visit http://web.mit.edu/anthropology/people/faculty/paxson.html.