As a child, I was a picky eater. Except when it came to cheese.
I eventually gained an appetite for other foods, but a decision to go vegetarian in my teens made cheese my focal point. It was my guilty pleasure, and one of my sole sources of animal fat and protein. Now, in my late 30s, the kind of cheese I eat today is drastically different from what I ate not even 10 years ago. And I’m far from alone.
Melted cheese—mozzarella on pizza, cheddar on macaroni, Monterey jack in quesadillas—is a prominent part of daily diets worldwide. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans eat an average of 30 pounds of cheese annually. Over a third of that comes from the mozzarella in pizza, while cheddar comes in as a close second. Yet in the past decade, both the domestic and global markets for cheese have begun to shift. Changing consumer concerns has led to more discriminatory tastes in cheese. America is experiencing a collective nostalgia for the cheeses of yesteryear—less processed, farmstead brands that hail from smaller-scale, pasture-based farms rather than the corporate behemoths of industrialized agriculture that currently dominate the market.
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Cheese has been around since before written human history, at least since 7,000 years ago. It is generally believed by most food historians that explorers from Asia introduced cheese and cheese-making techniques to the Romans, who in turn passed those practices to the furthest reaches of its Empire, contributing to cheese’s eventual popularity throughout much of Europe. Cheese was already a staple of the British diet, and it was part of the food supplies packed on the Mayflower when the Pilgrims set sail for the New World in 1620. But it would not be until the first cheese factory was built in New York, in 1851, that cheese would become a widespread product in the United States. 30 years later, the nation boasted nearly 4,000 dairy factories and made an estimated 216 million pounds of cheese annually.