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.
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There is a slow but building interest in making good food by hand, something reflected in a surge of new producers in the Midwest and beyond. Interest in sustainable and ethically treated meat and poultry has soared in recent years, and cheese plants are opening faster than they're closing in Wisconsin, as demand for artisanal cheese booms.Skip to next paragraph
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Bob Wills of Plain, Wis., will testify to the explosion of interest.
He's a master cheesemaker with a PhD in economics and a law degree who segued from a career in politics and academia to making mixed-milk cheeses and some of the tastiest cheese curds in the state.
"This is probably the most exciting time in the dairy industry in Wisconsin that there's ever been," Mr. Wills told me during a tour of his cheese-aging room in Wisconsin's idyllic Driftless Region.
"It's kind of like there's a renaissance – during history there have been these little periods when there'll be groups of writers in Paris or New York, or when [British poets] Shelley and Keats and Byron and all those guys hung out together and all challenged each other," he says. "And it feels like that's what's happening in Wisconsin right now."
The intellectual engagement demanded by seemingly simple things – growing vegetables, raising animals, making cheese – becomes evident only when you talk to masters of their crafts.
Take cheese, for example.
Every step an apprentice takes toward understanding the process of making the stuff reveals a new layer of complexity – the diet of the cows that make the milk, the breed and behavior of the bacteria that make the cheese, the market positioning and distribution required to stay competitive, the art of naming a new cheese, the frustrations and joys of training up the next generation.
Importance of humility
The common thread in interviewing more than 40 cheesemakers (not to mention a host of other Midwestern food craftspeople) was this: humility. The older and more experienced the master artisan, the more humility before the living ingredients he or she tended to exude.
Master cheesemakers don't burn out and move on – they work for 40 or 50 years, fully engaged to the end.
It goes without saying that a mass migration into artisanal foodmaking isn't a cure for the economy's past, present, or future turmoil, and that it's not a job for everybody. It's financially risky, exhausting, and, for anyone who's ever earned a steady paycheck, deeply intimidating and often impractical.
But the rewards – a connection to the land, to the community, and to an infinitely challenging craft – are something a spreadsheet-weary workforce should turn its tired eyes toward at this moment in history