Gimme the Dirt… On the Importance of Cheese
My new friend Lily was seated across from me at my kitchen table; this was the first time we were meeting face-to-face, but we felt like we already knew each other well. Thank goodness for cell phones, Instagram and dairy. On the table between us, on a wooden board, were cheeses made by Lily’s hands. She’s a cheesemaker at Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut, considered a cornerstone of the American farmstead cheese movement. I hadn’t asked Lily to bring cheese with her when I invited her to our farm, but I harbored a secret hope. Lily was meeting with me to put action into the idea I’d hatched months before when confined to a recliner after a seriously gross ankle surgery. To distract myself from the pain I’d thought of things to bring me joy, and my thoughts invariably began and ended with cheese. As my husband would unreservedly tell you, it’s when I’m left on my own that you need to watch out. All that time alone, recovering from surgery, gave me the chance to visualize myself in a room filled with women who work with cheese, a gathering to celebrate cheese and each other. I’m a farmstead cheesemaker, which can be a solitary pursuit, and in spite of my introversion, the idea of connecting in real life with others who love cheese as much as I do – both the making of it and the consuming of it – made me very happy indeed. I reached out to a handful of women who I respected and connected with online, and my recliner-phase idea got legs before I was back up and walking on my own. Now, here was Lily, ready to start organizing the gathering with me, stating in her breezy way: “I’m IN!” We started our conversation with the name of our gathering: what would we call it? Lily told me, “Becky, I’ve always loved alliteration, and I had an idea on my way here.” And so the Meeting of the Milkmaids was born.
Cheese didn’t start in the highbrow places it often finds itself today. In fact, cheese is a humble food, which likely came about accidentally, thousands of years ago, concurrent with the time of the domestication of milk-producing livestock in the Fertile Crescent. Cheesemaking is depicted on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, and by Charlemagne’s rule in the mid-Dark Ages cheese was widely being made throughout Europe, in wildly diverse environments from monasteries to the simplest of farmhouses. Cheese represents the stupefying cultural diversity that exists on this earth. Like the history of music and art, one can follow the timeline of civilization by following the history of cheese. Tasting some cheeses being made today requires a trek into the high mountains of Albania or distant outposts in Serbia and Croatia. These cheeses are direct descendants of the cheeses made centuries before, formed in ancient wooden buckets, and aged on boards just as old. The bacteria in the wood create textures and flavors found only in the cheeses in which they’re made. Often cheeses made the exact same way in the same village will vary from house to house, just based on the hands and equipment that touch them. Before the Industrial Revolution, the people who primarily cared for farm animals and made butter and cheese were women, and those women were called milkmaids. The name for the gathering at our farm, and which struck Lily like lightning on her way to my kitchen table, made my heart sing because it’s a reminder of the most critical role women have played throughout the ages on farms around the world. Sitting there together over a pile of delicious, diverse cheeses, we could feel the perfection of it.
It felt like a lovely way to honor all those women who came before us and to connect with modern women in real life. We were about to make being a milkmaid cool.
The planning commenced with seriousness, a substantial amount of laughter, and a quantity of consumed cheese I will refuse to admit to if asked. It moved forward with a dream team that felt gifted to me by the universe. Babs Perkins unreservedly said yes to helping, and also to being a presenter at the gathering. We had connected via social media when I happened upon an image of hers while scrolling from my recliner, my leg still in a cast. She bounded out of her car, jogged up our farmhouse steps, and announced, “I’m a hugger!” and I was enveloped in a tight embrace that felt like I’d known her my whole life. Once again I found myself at the kitchen table, Babs and I bonding over copious amounts of tea, coffee cake, and the young blue heron we watched futilely hunting frogs on our frozen pond. We talked about her passion for the Balkans, her fearless wanderings in the middle of nowhere as she chased down disappearing pastoral lives, and the cheeses that go extinct as globalism and subsequent governmental regulation take hold. Babs’ photos have been displayed in galleries, on social media, and when she was a contributor to National Geographic, something I didn’t know for months because she was too humble to say so. Babs would become our cheerleader: the person who, with equal parts common sense, plain speaking, and boundless love, would energize and unite us as we moved toward May 6th, the date we settled on for the “big day”. Babs, Lily and I would soon be joined by others. Rachel Banks had actually reached out to me after seeing a story about my cheesemaking online. After messaging with her for some months, and learning she was an administrator for a huge cheesemaking Facebook group, I asked if she’d like to join us. Rachel has the mind of a scientist: she’s someone to whom processes and rules matter – a needed addition to our working group.
The last person to join the team came to us in a roundabout way. The gathering was started as a way to honor and celebrate women working in cheese, but it was supported from the very beginning by a man: my husband Barton. It was clear from the outset that honoring and supporting one group does not mean diminishing or bashing another. While men weren’t to be a part of the gathering, we welcomed their support, especially Bart’s. One day Bart discovered that a local woman he met was a cheesemaker, and he told her “You need to meet my wife!” So Indigo Munoz-Weaver entered my world. It turned out that Indigo’s name was one of the most beautiful synchronicities. You see, while she makes a wide variety of cheeses extremely well, it is, perhaps, the creamy, salty, tangy and pungent blue cheese she creates on her kitchen stovetop that’s her best. Indigo…blue….get it? Indigo infused our team with a calming presence we desperately needed. Her voice has the power to create peace, just by speaking. Her smile is beautiful, her sense of humor quick, and her generous and immediate love of me, and my mutual love in return, were unexpected gifts. Indigo offered up the idea of a raffle, and our team decided to run with it. We decided on four baskets, stuffed with cheese-related items, with tickets sold to raise money for two organizations founded in honor of women gone too soon and who’d impacted the world of cheese in tremendous ways: the Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund and the Daphne Zepos Teaching Endowment. The connections of these organizations to our little team (and our gathering) felt bigger than coincidence, and Indigo’s idea did, too.
Email invitations were sent out to as many women working in the cheese world as we could think of and could collect. The RSVPs came in so quickly we created a waiting list. We decided that we would stuff as many people as we could into the little farm store above our milkhouse because we didn’t want to leave anyone out. We had another meeting in person, again at my kitchen table, again with cheeses brought by Lily from Cato Corner, more coffee cake and coffee. But this time it would be the whole team, together for the first time. None of us had met Rachel in person, because she lives so far away – in Buffalo! But once seated around the table, the rapport we all felt was instantaneous. We hammered out the details of the day, fell into natural roles, and after five hours we realized something huge: it was really happening!
Once the word was out, and the day approached, what happened was nothing short of miraculous. Requests for donations to our raffle baskets were met with an avalanche response. The Cellars at Jasper Hill offered their award-winning cheeses not just for the raffle, but also to serve at breakfast and lunch. Cato Corner, where Anne Saxelby got her start in cheese, donated, too. The offerings with special meaning came from small businesses where every penny counts. The local Starlite Motel told me, “Anyone who wants to stay with us, just have them give us the code “Milkmaid Mafia” for a 10% discount on their room.” About two weeks before the gathering, a huge box arrived from a small cheese business in British Columbia. Tracey Johnson, who would ultimately travel the farthest to attend, had sent swag bags from her cheesemaking supply company CheeseNeeds, stuffed with fun cheese-related items. Rachel contributed handmade favors featuring the logo she’d designed. Culture Magazine gave copies of their latest issue to every attendee.
Indigo showed up at the farm with three huge vinyl signs to let people know they were at the right place, plus the baskets we’d fill for the raffle and eight dozen fresh eggs from her hens for the milkmaids’ breakfast frittata. Sweet friends Tish and Sanjay arrived with vases of fresh tulips that flower farmer Tish grew, as a gift to decorate the tables and counter. Lily’s final act before heading to her lodging the night before the gathering was to hand grate 10 lbs. of cheese: eight of Cabot’s Seriously Sharp Cheddar, and two of true Swiss Gruyere for the macaroni and cheese I’d make to serve at lunch. I tried to sleep, but the excitement got in the way.
The gathering was a whirlwind. The arrival of our guests was joyful and exciting. The presentations by Babs and Mary Casella (a milkmaid historian and gifted cheesemonger) prompted stimulating and challenging conversations. The walk to the top of our hill after lunch meant the chance to breathe deep and take a group selfie with the Catskills as our backdrop. We saved the best for the last hour of the day. We’d set aside this time for a cheese tasting built of only women-made cheeses. Each guest had been asked to bring a hunk of their favorite cheese or one they’d made themselves, along with a pairing. Lily had asked Morgen Schroeder of Martha’s Vineyard Cheesery to help arrange the cheeses on our store counter – all twelve feet of it – and together they created a turophile’s dream. There were cheeses of every style and type, made from the milks of cows, sheep and goats. There were aged raw milk cheeses, fresh cheeses, hard and soft cheeses, even a daring liquidy cheese in a cardboard container (it was stellar!). Those cheeses became the great unifier. The cheese on our counter represented women of disparate ages, racial diversity and differing political viewpoints. During the planning phase of the gathering, our team had decided that rather than a serious, formal tasting, we’d let the milkmaids loose over the cheese board. There’s nothing like bonding over a gigantic (albeit artfully arranged) pile of cheese. Connections bloomed as clearly as the colorful rinds on those cheeses. Like proteins knitting together to form a cheddar, I watched powerful threads of relationships being woven before my eyes amongst women as diverse as the cheeses spread out before us. I’m convinced that all the world’s problems could be solved if only cheese were involved. Okay, and maybe some chocolate, too.
In a perfect conclusion, The Meeting of the Milkmaids is Instagram-official, interesting because that’s where the idea of a gathering first struck me. These are people I plan to learn from, and with whom I’ll grow my cheesemaking skills. They’re who I’ll turn to when I need a hearty dose of cheese-inspired joy. We’ve already started planning for next year. The Milkmaids as a group, it appears, is needed. From outside the farm store, where I went during the tasting to catch my breath, the happy energy emanating from inside made my skin tingle. The words of my sweet friend Michele, who’d been helping in the kitchen earlier in the day, played in my head: “You did it, Becky.” I repeated it to myself and actually did pinch my own arm. “We did it.” Lily, Babs, Indigo, Rachel and I. Together we did it!
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Rebecca Collins Brooks is a writer and farmstead cheesemaker on Hilltop Farm in Accord, NY. She is the creator and founder of The Meeting of the Milkmaids, a gathering of women working in the cheese and dairy industry. In addition to a small herd of dairy cows, she and her husband Barton raise Wagyu beef, selling meat to customers directly off the farm. Her best friends are two terriers, Winston and Molly; and Sylvie, a truly brilliant barn cat. You can visit the farm by appointment to see where truly good food is grown.