Joe discusses his new book American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World, how he became interested in artisanal cheese, the role of Whole Foods in the American cheese renaissance, the role of cheese influencers, and much more.

Joe discusses his new book American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World, how he became interested in artisanal cheese, the role of Whole Foods in the American cheese renaissance, the role of cheese influencers, and much more.

American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World can be purchased at Murder by the Book.

Joe’s 2 recommended reads are:

  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  2. Wow, No Thank You: Essays by Samantha Irby


cheese, cheeses, book, people, thought, read, influencers, world, hear, pandemic, artisan cheese, bit, whole foods, author, big, called, american, helping, age, impacted


Cindy Burnett, Joe Berkowitz


Cindy Burnett  00:06

This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast where I interview authors about their latest works. Listen to what inspired the storyline, how their covers and titles were chosen, their personal connection to the story, and other fascinating tidbits about the authors themselves. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. I can be found on Instagram and Pinterest at @thoughtsfromapage, and if you have any comments about the podcast or feedback for me, I can be reached at Joe Berkowitz is an editor and staff writer at Fast Company covering entertainment and pop culture. He has also written for The Awl, Salon, Rolling Stone, Vulture, and GQ. His latest book is entitled American Cheese: an Indulgent Odyssey through the Artisan Cheese World. Welcome, Joe. I had so much fun reading American Cheese, and I can't wait to talk about it. How are you?


Joe Berkowitz  00:58

I'm great, Cindy. Thanks for having me on.


Cindy Burnett  01:01

Sure, I'm glad you're here. Well, why don't we start with you talking a little bit about your book.


Joe Berkowitz  01:06

Sure. It's called American Cheese: an Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World. And it's about a year and a half of everything that happens in the artisan cheese world in America, between about mid-2018 through late 2019. But it's also about my own personal journey of discovering everything I could possibly find out about and everything I could experience with this food that I absolutely loved all my life and then only lately discovered I knew pretty much nothing about.


Cindy Burnett  01:48

I've lived cheese my whole life too. And I was absolutely amazed reading your book, because there was so much I didn't know either. I had no idea there were so many different types of cheese.


Joe Berkowitz  01:57

Yeah, that was one of the first things that that got me. I think if you would have asked me how many kinds of cheese there are in early 2018, I would have thought like 100 maybe. But there are thousands of them. And it's, if you put a bunch of different kinds on a plate together. It doesn't look like they could all possibly be the same substance. I think if an alien came to earth and saw a plate with seven different cheeses on it, there's no way they would guess it was all the same thing.


Cindy Burnett  02:28

You were describing much more obscure to me, I'm sure they're not obscure to everybody, cheeses. And I was having to look some of them up so I could see what they actually looked like.


Joe Berkowitz  02:39

Yeah, I wish that I could add photos into the book. I guess it would make it longer because I would want to add so many photos in. But yeah, I tried to describe them as best as I can. But some of them you really just have to see. I mean, I've seen cheeses that look like they have fish scales on them. And I've seen cheeses that are just big, runny pools, big puddles of cheese, so many different like different shapes and textures and colors. It's pretty amazing.


Cindy Burnett  03:13

How did you come up with the subject matter for this?


Joe Berkowitz  03:15

Well, it was two Valentine's Days ago, me and my wife were both vegetarians and we'd been through just about every awesome vegetarian restaurant in New York. No offense to anyone who haven't been to. And for this year's big meal, I saw an ad for the most decadent Valentine's day ever at Murray's Cheese Shop. They have kiosks in 400 Kroger supermarkets around the country, but I had never heard of them. A famous cheese shop was absolutely not famous to me. And but we went and I thought these cheeses were delicious. They were so far out of the range of the, the kind of pepper jack or cheddar, Gouda, whatever grocery store cheeses I'd had before. And hearing them talk about it really just kind of sent my mind reeling, because a major discovery that night was that so much has to go right in order to make cheeses come out the way they do, you know, it has to be a certain kind of animal and has to be milked a certain time of year. And you have to do certain techniques to make the cheese and you have to age it a certain way. And then it has to be cared for at a cheese shop. And then you have to put it in your fridge, and you have to keep it sealed the right way. So I was just kind of amazed by all this, and and hadn't thought of before, and I realized it was this whole bustling world with a lot of interesting people who I hadn't really considered what their jobs or their lives must be like. And I thought I would dive into all that. And it altered the course of the next couple years of my life after having that thought.


Cindy Burnett  03:22

One thing that I found really interesting was that the cheeses could be tried at different ages, like aged for three months age for six months age for nine months. And they tasted differently, depending on the age. And then also they were sold at different times. I thought that was fascinating.


Joe Berkowitz  05:22

Yeah, some places do a vertical tasting. A lot of cheese makers, they'll have their employees do vertical tastings to make sure that these cheeses are coming along the right way. So they'll take three months or six months and nine months, something like that. And each one has a different flavor profile. So for Jasper Hills' Bayley Hazen Blue, it has kind of almost, I'm going to get this backwards. It has kind of almost bitter metallic notes at a certain age and then caramelly notes at another age. And it's so interesting to see the same food taste differently at different ages. It's just it goes through an evolution. And yeah, people will. I heard this a million times just that cheese is a living food. And when you have one of those vertical tastings, that's when it becomes undeniable.


Cindy Burnett  06:18

Well, what do you hope your readers take away from this book?


Joe Berkowitz  06:22

I think the first thing is it's going to make them hungry. I have a hard time picturing reading this book, if you're not allergic to dairy, and not wanting to go out and buy a bunch of cheese. So I think that's probably going to be the main takeaway. I think what I would want is just a deeper understanding of this food substance that's been around for so long, and how it kind of unites urban communities and rural communities and how it's the the food that, that people with who are wealthy and people who are poor eat. And that I guess more importantly, though, it's something that Americans right now can take a lot of pride in I think.


Cindy Burnett  07:11

What I took away from your book was that I need to learn a lot more about cheese myself. So I looked up online, where cheese shops were in Houston, and there's one called Houston Dairymaids. So that's on my list to start frequenting there and trying some of the different cheeses you describe in your book.


Joe Berkowitz  07:26

Well, great. Your neighbors in Austin, they have a Whole Foods, the Whole Foods headquarters there. And I don't know, I don't think I talked about it that much in the book. But Whole Foods, they've had a big hand in helping America's cheese Renaissance because they've just made it easier for people to get cheese by carrying it nationally. There are cheeses that used to be you'd have to go to a cheese shop to get that are now carried in Whole Foods's across the country, partially responsible for spreading cheese knowledge and deliciousness everywhere. They were actually involved in, in helping Rogue River Blue. Before Rogue River Blue won the World cheese awards last year, it won its category in 2003. It was best blue. And Kathy Strange and Whole Foods helped export it. It was the first artisan cheese in America to be exported, ordinarily we're just bringing stuff in. Now we're starting to send stuff out. And that was the first one.


Cindy Burnett  08:32

That's very cool that they're a leader in bringing cheese to different people, especially these artisanal cheeses. I have two Whole Foods that are very close to me. And we also have another really nice upscale grocery store called Central Market, and they have like an entire block long wall of cheese. And so now that I've read your book, and I made a bunch of notes in my phone with some of these cheeses I wasn't familiar with, I need to go over there and just start working my way through their collection too.


Joe Berkowitz  08:59

Yeah, I have to find a way to make it easy for people to get in touch with me. I sort of want to hear what people think of cheeses, after reading about them in the book and then actually tasting them. I want to know if I was way off. And if it just hit me a certain way or if it's accurate, especially if it's accurate. If you are out there, taste the cheese and thought I was dead on, please let me know I would love to hear it.


Cindy Burnett  09:25

You can become the next cheese expert or one of these cheese influencers that you write about.


Joe Berkowitz  09:30

Yeah, I mean, I would feel a little bad about stepping into into their space because they are doing such a great job. But yeah, as I did more research, I started to learn about people whose jobs are, you know, they're they have built a brand, and they have a voice. And they're in this interesting in between space in that they're not makers of cheese and they're not sellers of cheese. They're just huge fans who dove in the way I did, ended up becoming a big part of their life. The main few who I track in the book, there's a woman named Tenaya Darlington, who goes by Madame Fromage. And she's been she's kind of the OG in the space. She's been doing it since the aughts. So I guess over 10 years now, and cheese makers really love to find connoisseurs who are into their stuff. Everybody's kind of a maven, where it's like, if you have a book, and you can think of the person who would most love to read it, and you give it to them and they're like, hey, like thank you for recommending that book to me. Cheese makers are like that. Cheese influencers are like that. There's just a lot of that going on in the world, there's a lot of mutual appreciation. So yeah, it's a that's another interesting space to get into after you start just eating cheese is finding out about these influencers.


Cindy Burnett  10:55

Well, and I think the role of influencers is in every industry and hobby and from here on out because bloggers I think started it, but once you've got social media, and a platform for it, I think that's happening in every corner of every world.


Joe Berkowitz  11:09

Mm hmm. Yeah, in this world, too. I mean, aside from those people who they identify as influencers aside from them. If you work at a creamery, every creamery I visited, there's all kinds of cheeses that are aging on racks. And there's just something about the site of hundreds of big wheels of cheese that aren't quite ready yet on racks and racks. And it's just visually really cool. And then that's before you even get to like the cows roaming around and the goats being goofy. And just there's so much to take pictures of so a lot of creameries now are taking advantage of having a social media and becoming mini influencers in their own right.


Cindy Burnett  11:52

Well, you've actually led me directly into my next question, which was how do you think the pandemic has impacted the cheese world? And the dairies and creameries?


Joe Berkowitz  12:00

Mm hmm. Well, it's affected just about every industry in a not-so-positive way. And, unfortunately includes cheese. It's been really sad for me as a observer slash I'd like to think kind of a friend to these people who I've met over the last couple years to see what's happened. It hasn't been total tragedy a lot across the board. A lot of places are doing what they can to adapt. But overall, sales are down with restaurants. Some of them closed altogether, some of them only doing limited seating and that sort of thing. I don't think everybody or a lot of people recognize how much certain creameries depend on restaurants for their sales. A lot of them really do. And so without that income coming in, you're leaning on online sales more, and people are struggling a little bit and an extra bit of sadness about that for me to observe it is because toward the back half of the book, and you know, my experience living the situations in the book, there were these impending tariffs that people start talking about around last summer. Where because of a dispute between the U.S. and U.K., a totally separate dispute about aerospace technology, cheese, unfortunately got roped into that. And there were threatening to be hundred percent tax hikes through tariffs on products like Parmigiano Reggiano and a bunch of other European cheeses that a lot cheese shops depend on. So a lot of people I was talking to were really worried, a lot, about that last year, and then it sort of came to a head in October, and then ended up not being so bad. There were 25% tariffs on certain cheeses. There were no big tariffs across the board. A lot of people breathe a sigh of relief, wiped some sweat off their brow and then 10 seconds later pandemic. Oh, yeah, that's been really unfortunate.


Cindy Burnett  14:09

Well, back to our influencer discussion, I have started following Madame Fromage on Instagram. And she's been doing a fabulous thing where she highlights different cheese shops across the country and specific cheeses that they carry and ways that you can order it. And I'm sure that's been very helpful for those stores.


Joe Berkowitz  14:28

Yeah, I think so. I think that just is kind of indicative of the all-hands-on-deck spirit of this community. People help each other as much as they can. And everybody's in trouble now a bit. So the influencers are trying to help the shops, and some creameries are trying to, like the larger ones, if they can are trying to help others. There's a history of this that I don't think I ended up getting into the book, but after California was hit with not current wave of wildfires, but some previous ones that hit in Sonoma and Marin County where a lot of creameries are located on what's called the California Cheese Trail, a lot of places pitched in, and they held fundraisers. And they tried to make some people who took losses whole again. And when there were the hurricanes in 2017, the dairy farmers of Wisconsin, which is an association that helps marketing for the farmers who make, dairy farmers in Wisconsin, they sent a lot of cheese down to cheese shops, I think that were affected because of that disaster. So yeah, this is a community that really likes to help each other and, and to me, it's, it's inspiring.


Cindy Burnett  15:45

I was thinking about the California Cheese Trail when I was reading about the fires that are now impacting Sonoma again, and wondering how many of those creameries were going to be impacted.


Joe Berkowitz  15:54

Yeah, I hear little bits about this. And it seems like, as far as I know, none of the creameries that I'm familiar with through researching the book have been profoundly affected by it. But I think everybody's affected a little bit. In Oregon, there's a thriving cheese community there. And they're having a tough time. And I don't think it's on the level of like my creamery burned down. But it's hard to keep businesses usual going when everything is a bit up in the air. And there's so much so much chaos going on.


Cindy Burnett  16:36

Well, I have a couple of friends in Seattle, and they're having it, I mean, it's to the point there where there's ash falling in their backyard, and the air is hard to breathe, and you're supposed to stay indoors. So I mean, if that's happening in California and Oregon too, which I'm assuming it is, then I mean, it's also being impacted that way.


Joe Berkowitz  16:55

Yeah, yeah, it's terrible. I hope this is ends up just being a particularly bad year, and not a trend of how things go going forward. So we'll see.


Cindy Burnett  17:08

So on a happier note, how did you come up with the title to this one?


Joe Berkowitz  17:11

Well, to be honest, American Cheese was kind of a placeholder at first, and it just hung around so long, that I gradually enjoyed it more, and I stopped trying to top it. I think the people at Harper Collins were happy with it. And I was less happy with it. And I just figured, well, you know, by the time I finished the manuscript, I'll have come up with something. American Cheese was just what we were calling it for a long time. And then I guess in my head, I thought there are so many books and movies, American Beauty American this, American that I thought American Cheese would kind of sound I would kind of evoke, also the idea of cheesiness, and in an interesting way. And I also thought it might be reclaiming the term from Kraft slices a little bit if I, if I used it in a book that I knew was going to be different. And then the subtitle, which is "An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World", I wanted it to kind of echo the subtitle of A Way with Words, which was "An Irreverent Journey Through the World of Pun Competitions". And so that's how we landed on that. And I'm pretty happy with it.


Cindy Burnett  18:32

I thought American Cheese was perfect, because I do think there's kind of almost a double meaning there. And it can be taken either way. And I thought that just made it a little bit more intriguing. And people are more likely to pick it up.


Joe Berkowitz  18:43

Yeah, I hope so. I thought I was hoping it wouldn't just sound like like, Hey, this is a book about which American cheeses there are. And so hopefully it doesn't sound that way. I think if people look at the cover, it won't hit that way. But you never know.


Cindy Burnett  19:02

I definitely think you're right. With that cover. I don't think it will hit that way at all. So before we wrap up, I would love to hear what you've been reading recently that you really liked.


Joe Berkowitz  19:11

Sure, I used the pandemic reading time to kind of catch up on some things. I don't know if you have the app Pocket where you just save articles to it. But I kind of went through my backlog of all these articles I've been saving for a long time. And then book wise I also read through some things I've been meaning to get around to. So I finally read Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. I haven't seen the miniseries on Hulu yet. I heard it's pretty good. But I loved the book. I just thought it was so carefully constructed and the way the information was doled out and the way the, the, the themes of motherhood and the folly of planned communities kind of came to the fore were just kind of, were brilliantly done. Celeste is an incredible author and deserves all her success. And so that was a fantastic read for me. And then, I had been hearing about Samantha Irby for a very long time. And she was just an author I had meaning to check out. And I read We're Never Meeting in Real Life, I think right at the start of the pandemic, and then I was so excited that she had a new one coming out, too. And so I think I'll recommend that new one, in case anyone listening hasn't read it yet, because I know it was a pretty popular book. Wow, No, Thank You it's called. And it just, she has such a distinctive storytelling style. And it's so funny and just pack so many funny things into a run on sentence that it just feels kind of like a magic trick. And her new collection, it continues the same things I love about her earlier work, but she's kind of a little bit older. And she's, she's had some interesting experiences in the meantime. I think she waits until she's had enough happen in her life before she writes a new book. And so yeah, she is just getting better and better. Not that she was worse before? I don't know. Incredible author, great book. And yeah, total recommendation.


Cindy Burnett  21:24

I always feel like that's a double edged sword when I say to an author, Well, this book was my favorite book of yours. Many times I've loved all their other books, too. But you then you're like, Okay, I hope that's a positive way to say that. So I know what you mean. And I love the cover on, on Samantha Irby's new when it's very distinctive and eye catching.


Joe Berkowitz  21:41

Yeah. And I too, am always wary of backhanded compliments. So that's why I found it so awkward there. I got one recently from one of the characters in the book. He, when he read it, he said, I didn't know you had it in you. And I know he meant well. I'm sure he did. But all I was thinking was like did this guy think I wasn't going to be good at this? So but I have a third degree black belt and reading too much into things.


Cindy Burnett  22:10

You're like I'm making an edit before my second edition comes out. (laughs)


Joe Berkowitz  22:16

(laughs) Yeah, 10% dumber and less attractive.


Cindy Burnett  22:21

Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. It has been so much fun to talk with you about American Cheese.


Joe Berkowitz  22:28

Thanks for having me on today. This has been great.


Cindy Burnett  22:32

Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you like this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would really appreciate it. Joe's book can be purchased at Murder by the Book where I work part time, and the link is in the show notes. Thanks to KP Regan for the sound editing, and I hope to see you next time.