Wednesday, December 8, 2010
On the excellent Heavy Table website last week, editor James Norton took the author of a recently published cookbook to task for what he saw as a serious misrepresentation of the history of cheesemaking in Wisconsin. He carried the argument beyond mere factual error, ascribing the off-hand dismissal of a long history of artisan cheese in the state to the condescending attitude of the coasts toward the middle of the country in general:
Artisan cheese is haute cuisine, an art that is most naturally associated with Italy and France. These are places that the California and New York gastronomic communities look up to.
California and New York look down upon the Midwest on general principle (and not totally without reason, if you’ve ever dined poorly in a large Midwestern suburb). Midwesterners who move to California or New York are often the worst offenders on this front — no one wants to be seen as an apologist for something uncool.
Therefore: World-class fine food cannot come from the nation’s heartland. Burgers, fries, smoked fish, and other folk food; fine. Raw materials for California and New York chefs, fine. But world-class cheese? No; that would be a disruption of the natural social order.
There was a lot about that article, the response of the cookbook's author, the comments on Heavy Table, that got me thinking. My first reaction was almost one of shock, to think that folks elsewhere would look down upon the amazing food resources that we have access to here in "flyover-land." I must have assumed that since I, and many others, have been extolling the virtues of our local, seasonal delights for so long, with such enthusiasm, our impassioned hymns of praise must have been heard the world over(!).
Personally, I eat so well, every day, relying almost entirely on our local bounty, that I would tend to respond to any coastal slight with a satisfied little burp and a smile, acknowledging that, yes, you there in New York, in California, you've far more Michelin stars to gaze upon than us bumpkins, it's a shame we suffer so, and I'd wish them well, and then get back to my meal.
And then there was the whole question, the distinction Jim Norton raises, of "haute cuisine" versus "folk food," and his assertion that artisan cheese belongs to the former category. And now, I'd have to agree that artisan cheese is surely looked upon as exalted foodstuffs, it has the price tag to prove it, but at heart I think it's one of the folkiest foods you can find. I mean, take some milk, make it curdle, stick it in a cave to get nice and moldy...? Does it get any more peasant than that?
I think it points up, once again, a profound and meaningful paradox that runs through the whole history of cuisine both haute and basse, which is: Many of the most sought-after, priciest, most rarified ingredients in the world of "high cooking" come from the lowest of places, and have traditionally been fare not for princes, but for peasants. Wild mushrooms that spring from the forest duff, those cheeses moldering in dank country caves, wild game and fish and shellfish--these are often abundant and common in the places where they arise, and only take on the patina of luxury in the context of the gourmet table. Any culinary cook would drool at the chance to cook with ruffed grouse and pheasant and fresh venison, but in the hunters' kitchens lots of fine game birds get the cream of mushroom soup treatment, and tons upon tons of venison wind up as terriyaki jerky sticks....
I guess it's really a question of perspective, as to one person the scent of a black truffle is the world's sexiest, most exquisite perfume, while to the next it evokes nothing so much as a pair of sweaty socks left in the gym bag over winter break. It's a shame to see the whole fascinating history of Wisconsin cheese tossed-off in one ill-considered headnote; on the other hand, I really could not care less about what anyone else thinks about this region, our food, our goofy accents, or even our Jell-O salads. I know we've got it good, and as to the question of high cuisine and low, in my own life and cooking I don't see the paradox I described above--I don't even recognize the distinction.
I'm as happy with a great piece of smoked fish as with a finely wrought dish at a gourmet restaurant (my home-smoked herring turned out really well, by the way). On the cheese plate we set out for a Bide-A-Wee brunch in honor of our friend Pete visiting from Montana, we had a sort of fancy cheese ( Marieke gouda*), a lovely but not pricey, nonetheless "brand-name" one (Black River Blue), and a no-name aged white cheddar that we often buy from our friend Renee Bartz at Bolen Vale. All were excellent, but the cheddar was especially good, to me. I think Pete really liked the blue.
And on the pickle plate, while chanterelles are generally considered a delicacy, milkweed is generally considered...a weed, go figure. And ramps, while they now enjoy a vaunted culinary reputation, are almost a symbol of Appalachian peasant food. A green bean is generally considered a green bean, and that one was a salt-brined fermented version thereof.
Used to be the aristocracy ate white bread while the hoi polloi bitterly gnashed away at their grainy loaves, but what goes around does come around, and now it's a sign of culinary sophistication to enjoy whole grain sourdough breads. What was traditional is new, the low becomes high. I'd have to say, when push comes to shove and my back is up against the wall to make the judgment call:
It's all good.
And pretty much everything on that table came from Wisconsin--by which I do not mean to slight Minnesota, don't want to start another fight! Great Hope butter from Minnesota, and Whole Grain Milling, Natural Way Mills flour in those "peasant loaves." Pickled green beans, Minnesota grown, right here on Princeton Avenue. I love it when everyone gets along, so deliciously.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw
* When I originally posted this I said it was Roth Kase "gruyère"; that was incorrect. But that's another excellent Wisconsin cheese.