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Conversations on Women and Cheese
There is magic in it.
By Zoë Johnson
Speaking to three women in cheese I learned about cheesemaking in the past and in the present and the important ways that women have shaped — and continue to shape — this craft. Carina Reckers is a Berlin-based cheesemonger and maker, writer and educator, interested in the stories that surround milk in all its forms. Andi Wandt is a cheesemaker, a passionate steward of artisan cheese serving on the Board of the Vermont Cheese Council, and the Production Manager at Jasper Hill Farm’s Food Venture Center Creamery in Vermont. And Mary Casella is a cheesemonger living in New York, a championer of women in the dairy industry, and an advocate of the history, culture, and relationship of humans and ruminants. Although the history of cheese, like many other foods and food cultures, reflects the co-opting and professionalization of traditional knowledge by patriarchal, capitalist powers, there remains a passionate community of cheesemakers and mongers around the world reflecting on this history and championing a more just, ethical, and delicious approach to cultured milk. This piece shares their reflections on the cheese industry in the US and Europe and the multidimensional connections between women and cheese. Although they were not interviewed together, I have aimed to put these women’s insights into conversation with one another. Their quotes have been edited for clarity.
I remember the first time I made cheese. Peering over the edge of the large pot of milk, I eagerly waited as the temperature crept upward. I watched as, through some unknown magic, the liquid seemed to thin into a cloudy bodiless fluid and from it emerged a mass of thick white curds. “There is a bit of magic in it. You have to admit it,” Carina explained to me over a Radler in a loud Berlin restaurant. She was reflecting on the intangible beauty and uncertainty of the process of turning milk into cheese that remains part of this process despite its “sciencification.”
Long before we knew the scientific explanations as to how cheese works, agrarian women around the world were producing cheeses of all types. Cheesemaking kept women close to the home and suited the rhythm of their busy days taking care of the children, tending to the house, and caring for the smaller farm stock. “Before it was commercialized, it had always been women's work,” Carina told me. Mary explained, “The word ‘dairy’ in English literally stems from ‘female servants’. Now that's something that we use, not only to describe an entire food group, but an entire industry that comes from labour that women did.” “Where this all changed,” Andi said, “was the Industrial Revolution, when cheesemaking went from being dominated by farmhouse cheeses to being produced in a plant — in a factory.” Carina said, “As soon as it got out of the private sphere of just sustaining a family or a smaller community, it got more into the male sphere”.
The industrial revolution fundamentally changed the food systems of Europe and North America, beginning the shift away from total reliance on small-scale food producers. With economies of scale on their side, industrial cheese producers were able to make more cheese for cheaper. Slowly, cheese (like so many other food products) became a big business.
Mary: “Men kind of swooped in and saw an opportunity. They were like, ‘we’re going to take all of this intergenerational knowledge — we're going to mine it from you — and then we're going to apply it and make it better’. And there were women who would teach or educate [cheesemakers] in factories, but cheesemaking became this mechanized industrialized product, and women were kind of just pushed to the wayside. Arguably you can say this freed women to pursue other things, which is fantastic, but the lack of recognition is definitely problematic.”
Industrialization also came with advances in scientific knowledge and understanding of food safety which changed the way foods, like cheese, was produced. Mary pointed out that women were largely excluded from participating in and learning about scientific discoveries which pushed them even farther to the margins of this changing industry.
Mary: “You mostly hear about men in the industry. Why is that? There are so many women making cheese… I've had women [cheesemakers] tell me that people are like ‘oh, you make this in your kitchen?‘ Or like, ‘oh, this must be your husband's farm‘. And it's like, no, these are, these are my animals. And no, this isn't like Suzy Homemaker just making some cupcakes. No disrespect to that, but this is my profession. I am a professional, I am knowledgeable in this and this is my job. It all comes full circle to seeing women‘s work is not work. Men are the consummate professional — you know, it's chef versus housewife, hobby versus profession. Why do we never take what women do seriously? Women's work is so often ignored or undervalued… It is kind of incredible to me that several cheese books have sections about women in the industry, but there's no comprehensive history of what women have done.”
Andi: “You know, there's a, there's a book about cheddar by a cheesemonger named Gordon Zola Edgar. And he wrote in his book that ‘there are only a handful of female cheddar makers in the United States’. At that point, I was the head cheesemaker at a cheddar plant, and I wrote to myself in the margins, ‘I can name seven right now’. His point was that because cheddar production has become this very labour-intensive thing, women have gone out of it. I thought his statement was not only inaccurate, but a little short-sighted in some ways because it has become a real male-dominant field, but I don't think he is seeing the whole nuance of it. At the time, and even I think when he [Edgar] wrote that book, the head cheesemaker at Shelburne Farms was a woman and Shelburne Farms is a nationally recognized artisan cheddar cheese producer.”
Although Andi has, throughout her career in cheese, worked with and learned from many other women, in her current job at Jasper Hill Creamery, she is the only woman on her team. “We don't really get a lot of female applicants and I've asked myself a lot, ‘why is that?’ I think some of it is cheesemaking has become extremely labour intensive. There's a lot of heavy lifting. There's a lot of machinery… It has become work that is more stereotypical of men's roles in the workforce.” This is a direct result of the industrialization of cheese production. In the US, women make up a very small percentage of cheesemakers; according to statistics compiled by Zippia, an online career information platform, in 2021 only 22 percent of all cheesemakers in the US were women.
Andi went on, “Unfortunately, we don't instil in young women and girls — in general — that kind of comfort with working with tools, and so I think women entering this industry face an intimidation factor. I used to have a lot of imposter syndrome. I think I was insecure about some of those things, like am I going to be seen as not knowing what I'm doing because I'm a woman, and that's a terrible way to feel, right? Am I not technically inclined because I'm a woman? No, absolutely not. Anybody can learn anything. But it's kind of these stereotypical roles surrounding mechanics and very heavy lifting.”
Mary, who is currently an affineur (someone who ages cheese) at Crown Finish Caves told me that the physical element is something she particularly likes about working in cheese: “I'm not really like sit behind a desk person. I like to be active and on my feet.” Having worked across the industry from cheesemonger to shop manager, in small-scale and large-scale environments, Mary is no stranger to the ways in which women’s abilities and skills are subject to scrutiny from colleagues and customers alike. “The number of times I've either been working behind the counter or delivering something and someone sees me either lifting something heavy or using a knife and makes some kind of comment like, ‘Oh, be careful’. Or ‘Oh, you've got that?’ Or frankly, just questioning my knowledge. There is a lot of mansplaining and presumptions of what you know, or what you're capable of.”
Andi, on the other hand, told me she has “never really been mansplained in the cheese industry,” a huge contrast from her earlier career in beer. (She later remembered one former job where she was frequently mansplained by her boss, but this was the exception, not the rule.)
Carina, Andi, and Mary all spoke about the importance of other women in shaping their careers, building a sense of shared community, and carrying forward the artistry of cheese. As Carina put it, “It's given me role models of how, as a woman, you can create your own space in the cheese world.”
The goat ladies
Andi told me that although the industrial revolution changed things, there remains a real artistry to making cheese, and in the US, women were at the forefront of reviving this craft. Mary explained, “The rebirth of artisinal cheesemaking here in the States really came about through the [second wave] feminist movement and back to land homesteading… the idea of going back to land and providing for your family with food that is healthy and nourishing and you know where it comes from.”
Both Mary and Andi referenced the ‘goat ladies‘, who were part of the Second Wave movement that started. These women are credited with pioneering the craft of goat cheese production in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. According to New York City cheesemonger Anne Saxelby’s “5 Minute History of Women in Cheese”, in these early years, neither the goats nor the equipment for milking them were available in the US since the dairy industry was overwhelmingly focused on perfecting the production of cow milk and cow cheeses. Although Andi mentioned the physical size of goats and the scale of their milk as perhaps part of the reason the women chose to work with these animals, she thinks it was more than just that: “I think these women were thinking creatively about entering this new market and kind of thinking outside the box.“
Carina too spoke about women goat farmers in Germany. “Sabine Jürß, her dairy is called Scellebelle, she does everything herself. The agriculture part, she takes care of the animals, milks them twice a day. She has a herd of around 60 goats that she milks… Sabine is working with a herd of Poitevine, which is a French breed of goats and she's also working with a German breed, but she's making these classic French styles [of cheese].”
Carina brought this up in the context of explaining her interest in the way cheese connects different histories and creates new traditions that are firmly rooted in place. Her thesis, which she wrote while studying at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy, examined the interconnection between humans, animals, and landscapes. She discussed how landscapes are shaped by the history of pastoralism and how that, in turn, influences the practice of pastoralism in a given area.
Andi too reflected on the interconnected histories of humans, animals, cheeses, and landscapes: “All of the styles of cheese that we have today reflect the socioeconomic conditions of the place that they were invented… making this connection — we have this distinct style of cheese because of X, Y, and Z factors — to me was like ‘Aha! Wow, cheese is fucking cool.’”
Bra also happens to be the city where the biggest festival dedicated to raw milk cheeses in the world is hosted each year, which both Carina and Mary attended in 2021. That year, the event dedicated greater attention to women cheesemakers than in previous iterations; reading through the profiles of women cheesemakers available on the Slow Food site, it is interesting to see the ways these women are portrayed as deeply connected to land on which they farm, and as maternal, “guardians… of traditional knowledge”.
“You know, women lactate too… I'm not saying that women are inherently better farmers or cheesemakers because they have the intution, but it's not for nothing.” Mary explained “One woman I spoke to, was talking about how she was still breastfeeding her son and sometimes in the middle of the day she needed something to boost her energy or feel better. So she was like, ‘I have a piece of chocolate,’ and so for her goats who had just given birth, she gave them some extra feed other than their typical grass diet. A little treat. Again, I would like to stress that I'm not trying to polarize and generalize too much, but men probably don't have that intuition of what a mother goes through. What does a body feel like when you've given birth or you're breastfeeding or lactating?”
She went on, “You can get a little heavy-handed with the connection between human females and female animals but that connection only goes so far. There are plenty of men who are very good with their animals, but the connection [between women and female animals] shouldn't be ignored.”
Mary, who is in the process of conducting research on women in the dairy industry, funded by the Daphne Zepos Research Award said that in her work, she aims to “acknowledge the inherent connection between women and animals, while also making sure that it continues to be about the work that they're doing… [women should be] recognized for the work that they do because it's good. Not because they‘re a woman doing it.”
To milk and be milked
Although the connections between humans and animals run deep, there is no getting around the fact that the dairy industry fundamentally relies on, as Astra and Sunaura Taylor put it, the“sexual, reproductive, and economic exploitation of animals.”
“It has a cruelty in it, that's not to deny.“ Carina said. “I wouldn't know how to explain to a vegan how [milking and killing animals] is a fine thing to do.“
Andi: “I was a vegan for a period of time. I read that book, Skinny Bitch, when I was a freshman in college and was like, ‘Oh my God, we're mistreating the animals. This is terrible.’”
Mary: “It is an unavoidable factor that you have to take the calf away from the mother in order for it to be milked. But there, there are plenty of farmers who do this in a humane way.”
Andi: “Cows have been domesticated by humans for millennia at this point. The way that I view a responsible farmer is that when you have cows you're entering into a social contract with those animals: I will take care of you and you will take care of me. I think factory farms clearly do not prescribe to this notion. But when I talk about the farms that we work with at Jasper Hill, the farm I worked at Shelburne Farms, those animals are so beloved. And so taken care of. Every animal is named. They live a beautiful life of 10, 12, 15 years, which when you look at factory farms is closer to three, four or five. They provide milk. The milk is turned into cheese and the farmer in return provides a comfortable, happy life for this animal until it is retired. And yes, of course, it is going to become meat but we do that most humane way possible. I view it as this unspoken social contract and every good farmer I have met feels it… I think respecting animals is of the utmost importance.”
Carina: “Maybe it's not just the simple math of what do they get out of it, but it is… a symbiotic relationship that has been developed over thousands of years because we've created all of these breeds wouldn't exist without human interconnection… And I think if you want to weigh it out, I think the value [making cheese] in a traditional way, in relationship to the country, the landscape, the soil that you're working on, the animals, in the best sense, it's creating more biodiversity. It's creating also biocultural diversity. And then maybe the price that we're paying is some pain that we're inflicting on animals. But also I think if you're working closely with the animals, you're feeling with them. It's not like you don't give a shit.”
Mary: “There‘s a huge human legacy behind dairy… I think the cultural importance is too great to just kind of say, oh, we should not eat cheese anymore, or you should not drink dairy anymore.”
Carina: “It is very, very delicious, and beautiful, and it makes lots of people happy. People are going to eat cheese anyway so if we all agree we want to eat cheese, then why not eat good cheese coming from people who do it with lots of love towards the animals.”
Diversity in dairy
There is no doubt that eating small-scale artisan cheese is the more ethical and environmentally friendly option, however, the reality is that these products remain out of reach for many people.
Mary: “Obviously it's not accessible for everyone and it can be very expensive.”
Andi: “That does give it a level of classism. We deal with things like food deserts in the United States, right? Like the only place you can go to buy food is a dollar store, where you're paying maybe a 50 percent markup on everything you buy and you can only buy processed foods. The cheeses we sell at Jasper Hill, you know, if you are on food assistance, that is not where you're going to choose to put your benefits. Unfortunately, the cost of these cheeses is an accurate reflection of the labour and inputs that go into them.”
Carina: “Making cheese is such intense work.”
Andi: “I think this leads us to a larger conversation about how some food is in a lot of ways is artificially cheap in our country [the US], at least the good food. And it all ties into a larger conversation of how people are underpaid, unfortunately in our country. And that cheap food is artificially underpriced… It's a problem across our food system. So we are dependent on this underpaid and undervalued labour to eat well. It's not unique to dairy.”
In both Europe and the US, the agri-food industry relies heavily on migrant labourers. The drive to produce cheap food relies on the exploitation of these vulnerable groups. In this sense, not only is the dairy industry built on the exploitation of women’s and animals labour, but in the US in particular, it is also dependent on the labour of marginalized and racialized communities.
Although more than 50 percent of all labour in the dairy industry is performed by immigrants, the cheese industry in the US remains very white. Mary explained: “There are like extenuating circumstances where most of the cheese culture happens to come from predominantly white countries. But you know, we live in a day and age where anyone should have equal opportunity… I think [diversity] is still something that the industry and community really need to work on. How can we make this a space and environment and welcomes a more diverse group of people into the community? One of my overarching goals with being in this industry is to make cheese more accessible.”
The marginalization of racialized people in the cheese industry stems from the fact that their work tends to be concentrated at the earlier stages of milk production and dairy and is therefore largely invisible and undervalued. As Andi put it: “The cheese industry is diverse if you go to the root of where milk is coming from, but these people are not being highlighted in our industry. And that is part of the problem… the cheesemaker is not necessarily the most important person. They may be a person turning your milk into something that instead of being able to charge US$20 a hundredweight as liquid, you can now charge US$30 a pound as cheese, but without the milker, your business collapses. If you don't have somebody to milk, your cows, what the fuck are you doing?”
Andi described an experience of working at a creamery in California. “All of the staff were Mexican families… we lived in farm housing with all the other farm workers. My partner and I were the cheesemakers and all the other people who lived on the farm or the farmworkers — I feel like the story will illuminate what I'm trying to say — basically, due to a fire, we were going to lose power at the farm and the owner provided a generator for myself and my partner, and he was like, ‘Why are you giving us a generator and not all the other families?‘ And he's like, ‘You guys are the cheesemakers you're the most important employees‘. And [my partner] turned to him and said, ‘Ray [another worker] is your most important employee. He milks the cows. And without him, I cannot do my job.’ The owner of the ranch did not see it this way… He viewed [my partner] and I as the white cheesemakers, making significantly more than anyone else working for him, as the most important employees because we made the cheese. But without Ray who was paid below California minimum wage, we could not do our job… the real disconnect is that in many parts of the country, cheese is supported by Hispanic America… it does not happen without them.”
Women’s legacy in cheesemaking
There is no doubt something magical and mystical about cheese. The 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen compared cheesemaking to the miracle of life, through which the insubstantial coalesces into a solid form. Similarly, in his book, The Cheese And The Worms, Carlo Ginzberg compares the appearance of cheese from milk to the formation of the universe: “All was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels.” Given the traditional associations between women and creation, perhaps it is unsurprising that in the pre-industrial period in Europe and North America, cheesemaking was considered “women’s work.”
Cheesemaking was an integral part of pastoral women’s lives. This connection went beyond the conveniences of dairying alongside keeping the home. In their powerful socialist-feminist critique of the meat and dairy industry, Astra and Sunaura Taylor argue that this presumed connection between women and lactating animals was rooted in an understanding of women’s bodies (namely breasts) as innately animal. In their telling, this link between women and animals served to justify women’s subordination; in contrast, men’s bodies were set apart from the animal kingdom and therefore, superior.
The legacy of women in cheesemaking has resisted co-opting by the patriarchal forces of industrialization, although it remains rife with tensions, challenges, and complexities. Despite the fact that women’s work in the cheese industry is so often undervalued, there’s a resurgence in women-led dairy; a 2017 New York Times article on the changing culture of cheese called independent American cheesemaking “an obvious if undersung exemplar of the ultimate matriarchal workplace.” By creating their own space in the cheese industry, women cheesemakers like Andi, Carina, and Mary are also creating opportunities to question the status quo and strive for a more equitable future. The magic of cheese continues.
Zoë Johnson is a founding editor of Feminist Food Journal.