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Thinking about a new job? Have you considered making cheese?

In an age of e-mails and blogs, people are hungry to produce something real.

By / December 4, 2009

Minneapolis., Minn.

The US housing crisis and the deeply intertwined financial services crisis have one important thing in common: Both, to a large extent, were the consequences of building castles in the air. And both helped put the country into an economic coma from which it is only now beginning to awake.

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From an economic perspective, a return to consciousness will mean a reassessment of what works and what doesn't. From a personal perspective, it will mean a reassessment of work itself. Countless Americans today are looking for jobs that are meaningful, sustainable, and – in the true sense of the word – productive.

For some of them, perhaps many of them, that work may lie in the countryside or in the kitchen or in the salty depths of a feta brine tank.

In the course of researching a book about Wisconsin's master cheesemakers and editing a magazine dedicated to Midwestern food culture, I've had a chance to survey the boom of interest in locally made food from many angles.

If you can get past city limits – and then, more crucially, get past the suburbs that bloom everywhere like algae – you meet some remarkable people, people who use their hands to wrestle living ingredients into forms that are both truly beautiful and deceptively sophisticated.

The minor questions I've tackled have been concrete and comprehensible: How does an experienced beekeeper position his hives to access the perfect blend of alfalfa, basswood, and clover? Or how can cherries be incorporated into an aged cheddar without throwing off the balance of sugar, resulting in an ammoniated cheese?

But the major theme has been this: How can we take satisfaction from our work, every day?

What do you produce?

Your happiness at work can probably be answered, in large part, by answering a simple question: What is your work product?

If it's phone calls, spreadsheets, e-mails, meeting agendas, or reports, odds are good that you're an avid watcher of the clock.

Life consists of wanting to escape the office, physically or mentally – just watch any given Lean Cuisine commercial, wherein a pack of office-bound ladies jealously size up a rival who has had the good sense to pick a diet meal with the power to mentally transport her away from the air-conditioned salt mine that has entombed her spirit.

But if your work product is artisanal cheese, healthy free-range chickens, hand-roasted coffee, or authentic baguettes, you're probably consumed with and deeply enriched by it; consistently hassled by real-world economic concerns and competition, to be sure, but connected to your day-to-day labor in a way that's more emotionally meaningful – and more economically productive – than most of your office-bound counterparts.

Good farms, good food

All things agricultural and gastronomic have been coming into vogue in recent years – Michael Pollan has written about the need to return to the diets and food folkways of our great-grandparents, and Mark Kurlansky tackled the folksy food writing of the prewar Works Progress Administration in "The Food of a Younger Land."