I’m so impressed by The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), a new book by James Norton and Rebecca Dilley, I hardly know where to begin. First off, the pictures are exquisite, capturing the essence of small towns in rural Wisconsin and the dairy hives within them. What Robert Frank did in the 1950s, capturing stark images of post-war America, photographer Becca Dilley does for the cheese state, peeling back the shrink-wrap to give us glimpses of Amish milking barns and portraits of hair-netted men with muscled fingers stirring curds. She captures the zeitgeist of artisanal cheesemaking.
What Dilley does in her photographs, Norton does in his writing, creating intimate scenes rather than lists of facts. The reader follows Cedar Grove’s Robert Wills into his living wastewater treatment plant (it looks like a lily pond) and learns about his annual curd-fattened bluegill fishfry. Doug Peterson, of Mazomanie, talks about how he left a large dairy cooperative in order to develop a cheese for high-temperature pizza ovens. What this book does, unlike other primers and atlases I’ve picked up, is connect readers to the impassioned few who dream up cheeses like Faarko, maple leaf cheese, and cinnamon-rubbed butter jack.
Dilley and Norton, who are part of the Twin Cities food blog Heavy Table, embarked on this book project to explore the Master Cheesemaker Program run by Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, an organization that Norton describes as “a Jedi High Council of Dairy Knowledge.” The program takes between 13 and 15 years to complete and has certified 44 Master Cheesemakers in the state of Wisconsin, as of 2008. Dilley and Norton set out to meet each one in person.
The book is organized by region, with useful maps, tasting notes, and visitor information. It’s a pleasure to look at and worth keeping in the kitchen by the cheese board or on the coffee table during a tasting. But the thing I admire most about this project is the storytelling, done through both words and pictures. The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin does what more cheese books ought to do: it connects us to the hands behind the wheels.