As someone who has many interests but never a clear idea of what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, it’s a little hard not to envy Liz Thorpe. In 2002, she quit a corporate job to work behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York for minimum wage, because she decided on a romantic whim that she wanted to work in cheese (in her paraphrased words, the reason was something like “I thought it would sound cool at cocktail parties”). In seven short years her new career has skyrocketed: she is now Vice President of Murray’s, has traveled all over the U.S., advises chefs as reknowned as Thomas Keller on their cheese menus, and just recently appeared on Martha Stewart. Oh, and did I mention she wrote a book?
The Cheese Chronicles is Liz’s self-proclaimed attempt to trace and document the origins and history of cheesemaking in America. The chapters loosely group together various artisanal cheesemakers into somewhat arbitrary categories such as “Pastured”, “Farmers’ Markets” and “Restaurants”. Within each chapter, Liz describes her visits and experiences with the cheesemakers, their back stories, and of course their products. The cheese operations she features run the gamut from tiny creameries who only sell their cheese locally, to larger, nationally distributed companies such as Cypress Grove, and everything in between. Each chapter has several sidebars that are interesting and informative but tend to interrupt the book’s “flow”, requiring the reader to hop around a lot.
If the book’s organization is its biggest flaw (and it’s a minor one at that), its most shining quality is Liz’s ebullient prose. You can tell that, dammit, this is a woman who loves cheese! While her descriptors sometimes verge on wanky (think snooty wine critic), I can forgive her that because a) let’s face it, there are a limited amount of adjectives one can use when describing cheese flavors, and b) her willingness to go out on a limb just goes to show her enthusiasm. Rather than come across as pretentious or stuffy, Liz’s tasting notes convey the depth of her infatuation and continued excitement for her subject.
With its narrow subject matter, you may think The Cheese Chronicles would only be of interest to a very small minority of food-snob cheese fanatic types, but I think anyone who loves good food and who cares about artisanal production will find something of interest in this book. There are lots of “people stories” here too, so it’s a good balance of factual information and storytelling and never gets dull. Cheesemakers, as it turns out, are a colorful bunch.
I picked up The Cheese Chronicles in part because my burgeoning food curiosity has led me to want to explore whether there might be any feasible careers in food. Having worked in restaurants, I know the life of a chef is not for me, but what about producing and selling a food product? One of the great things about this book is that Liz goes into detail of how each and every producer got started. It’s reassuring and inspiring to know that there are success stories from those who had never had a whit of experience as well as from those who had dairy farming in their blood. I did attend a cheesemaking class at a goat farm recently and am investigating the possibilities of home cheesemaking, so who knows? Meanwhile, I’ve got a new list of must-try cheeses to get my hands on. Expensive, yes, but hey, it could end up being “market research”!
Follow Liz on Twitter: twitter/LizCheese