A bit of recent cheese history: it was very difficult to be an American caseonaut before the 1990’s, as there just weren’t that many cheeses around to sample.
“American Cheese” was synonymous with Kraft’s American “cheese,” which, (as I’ll talk about in a later post,) usually isn’t actually cheese. Cracker Barrel cheese (the white kind, at least) was thought of as being slightly exciting, and once in a while a party-giver would put out some brie, which no one would know how to eat. (Eat the rind? Don’t eat the rind? What the heck?)
Then, as the story goes, in the 1970’s a woman named Laura Chenel teamed up with famous chef Alice Waters to introduce goat cheese to the United States. (Read more about Chenel’s cheese at The New York Times: For American Chevre, an Era Ends, by Kim Severson, 10/18/2006. Waters liked to put her cheese on salads.) This started getting people interested in what other kinds of cheeses might be out there, and though the effect wasn’t immediate, within another couple of decades artisanal cheese makers were producing lots and lots of different cheeses all over the country. Today, “American Cheese” means, well, one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of cheese currently produced in America.
This parallels the recent renaissance of American beer. As Julie Johnson writes in an article called called “Craft Beer and Artisan Cheese”:
“Many of us who grew up before the craft brewing revolution were exposed to bland cheese and bland beer, and for a lot of the same reasons,” observes Charles Finkel, founder of Seattle’s Pike Brewing Co. and an advocate for handcrafted foods of all types. “The words ‘American cheese’ or ‘American beer’ were synonyms for something that had little or no taste, that is mass-marketed and fills the void between being hungry or thirsty and satisfying those needs, but not with any panache.”
But over the past four decades, consumer frustration with national brands and styles has transformed wine, beer, coffee, chocolate—and now, cheese.
Read the rest of Johnson’s article at the All About Beer Magazine website, Volume 31, Issue 1, March 1, 2010.