The One Big Blunder of ‘One Big Table’

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

With the best of intentions, I requested a review copy of One Big Table: 600 Recipes from the Nation’s Best Home Cooks, Farmers, Fisherman, Pit-Masters, and Chefs. The book, written by former New York Times food columnist Molly O’Neill, features recipes from all over the country (including Minnesota and Wisconsin).

Therefore: Recipe-testing a few local submissions while summing up the rest of the book sounded as though it would be a lot of fun.

But then the fun went bad.

Consider these historical dates:

In 1858, Wisconsin’s first cheese factory was established in Sheboygan Falls.

In 1873, Wisconsin was shipping cheese to eastern markets in refrigerated train cars.

In 1879, the predecessor to the Wisconsin (later National) Cheese Exchange was set up in Plymouth.

And by 1915, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin “had become the leading dairy state in the nation, producing more butter and cheese than any other state.” Late 19th Century innovations in dairy science and safety (pushed by pioneers such as William Hoard and Stephen Babcock) made it a cheese and dairy powerhouse.

Now consider this passage from One Big Table, which introduces a recipe featuring Wisconsin cheese. I’ve added italics to the words that are particularly categorical, definitive, and wrong.

“Florida is oranges. Texas is beef. Maine is lobster. And in the 1920s, some marketer decided that Wisconsin should be cheese. The state had no history of cheese making, and no more dairy cows than Vermont or New York. It did, however, have a surplus of milk.”

So. Let’s forget the copper cheese kettles of the Green County Swiss and let’s forget the establishment of the nation’s first dairy school at the University of Wisconsin in 1890, and let’s forget the previous 70 years of grassroots and then serious industrial cheesemaking — the origin of Wisconsin cheese is “some marketer” in the 1920s. Also worth noting: In 1922, there were 2,800 cheese factories in Wisconsin. From 0 to 2,800 in two short years — good Lord, what a terrific marketer this anonymous chap must have been!

Because before that, presumably, Wisconsin dairy farmers — many of whom emerged directly from great central European cheesemaking traditions — were just pouring their surplus milk out onto the street like slack-jawed idiots: “Duh, I wish there was something we could make with this stuff that would add value and extend its shelf life! Oh well!” [Empties pail of milk onto the carrot patch]

An exchange (via publicist, via email) with the author yielded no satisfaction — her five-paragraph reply (which I’ve reprinted at the end of this story) refused to engage with the core problem, which is this text:

“And in the 1920s, some marketer decided that Wisconsin should be cheese. The state had no history of cheese making…”

… as compared with the fundamental timeline of cheesemaking in the state of Wisconsin.

As anyone who’s ever tried to extol the virtues of anything Midwestern to anyone on either coast knows, this sort of nonsense is par for the course — there’s an inescapable coastal myopia about Midwestern eating that manifests itself in magical realism (i.e., only New York City water can create the crust required for edible pizza) and pat-on-the-head-condescension toward kitschy regionalisms like hotdish and fish boils.

If this essay seems unnecessarily piqued by one author’s bald misstatement about an American state’s signature industry, that’s because this book is, in fact, the rather large straw that broke the camel’s back as far as this sort of thing goes. It directly recalls another book, Mastering Cheese, written by Max McCalman and David Gibbons. Despite the fact that Wisconsin routinely wins more medals in international cheese competitions than any other country (not state; country), Mastering Cheese broke the nation up into the following four cheese-producing regions: The Northeast, The Pacific Northwest, The Rest of the Northwest, and the West Coast. Wisconsin cheeses get a single mention in “The Best of the Rest.”

Wisconsin was literally wiped off the map. People who really like to eat cheese feel differently; you go to a serious cheese shop in New York or San Francisco, and you’ll find imported cheeses a-go-go, plenty of Wisconsin cheeses, good quantities of stuff from Vermont and California, the oddball cheese from Idaho or New York. Rarely — if ever — cheeses from the Rest of the Northwest.

What gives?

Here’s a theory about these past, current, and future slights:

Artisan cheese is haute cuisine, an art that is most naturally associated with Italy and France. These are places that the California and New York gastronomic communities look up to.

California and New York look down upon the Midwest on general principle (and not totally without reason, if you’ve ever dined poorly in a large Midwestern suburb). Midwesterners who move to California or New York are often the worst offenders on this front — no one wants to be seen as an apologist for something uncool.

Therefore: World-class fine food cannot come from the nation’s heartland. Burgers, fries, smoked fish, and other folk food; fine. Raw materials for California and New York chefs, fine. But world-class cheese? No; that would be a disruption of the natural social order.

That aside, One Big Table looks like a pretty interesting book. And to be totally fair, it’s entirely possible Ms. O’Neill was trying to write authoritatively and interestingly about just about every topic under the sun and — in that process — got some broad historical info that mutated during the research, writing, and editing process into a wrong-headed historical pronouncement. That’s perfectly understandable. But a mea culpa and a “well, you’re right, there’s an impressive grassroots history of cheesemaking in Wisconsin that pre-dates the 1920s” after the fact would have been nice. Downright Midwestern, in fact.

Postscript:

What follows is the full text of Molly O’Neill’s response, via an email on Dec. 1, 2010. Note that at no point in this lengthy response does she acknowledge a) writing, explicitly, that there was no pre-1920s cheese history in Wisconsin, nor b) that there is, in fact, a tremendously well-documented pre-1920s cheese history in Wisconsin. These are the specific points I sought comment on, hoping that the contradiction could be written off as a typo, the work of a poorly prepared assistant, or some kind of medical condition.

My responses to her response, made necessary by the thick layer of misinformation caking this note, are bolded.

Hi!

Thanks for forwarding the note from James Norton — and its fine with me if you want to pass this along.
He’s right: the intense sensitivity that we midwesterners have about the “east coast rants” clouded his reading of the top half of page 24 !!!

The Hooks are one of the “new” Wisconsin cheese makers who are working hard to reclaim precisely the family farmstead cheese making that was lost in the early 1920’s when the state of Wisconsin invested heavily in the the technology and infra-structure needed to position the state as “cheese making capital” of the United States.
Wisconsin had no more — or less — claim on being the nations cheese captial than at least half a dozen other states. [I’d disagree — the foundation of the nation’s preeminent dairy magazine (Hoard’s Dairyman — it conducted the first national “cow census”), signal breakthroughs in dairy science at the University of Wisconsin such as the Babcock butterfat test, and the founding of what would later become the national cheese exchange are three unique claims; yet another is making more cheese than other states] Where ever there have been cows, there has always been cheese in the United Sates. [Well, yes; but not every state was exporting refrigerated car loads of the stuff, as Wisconsin was in the late 19th Century – in fact, I’d be curious to hear if any were] the earliest center was in the Hudson River Valley (true birthplace of Philadelphia Cream Cheese); the move west first to my home state, Ohio, and onward north and west to Wisconsin was predicated on cheap land, plentiful water and, as unions became more of an issue in the east, on cheap labor. [Cheap labor notwithstanding, the initial impetus for the Wisconsin cheese industry was a wheat blight that mandated a new direction for southern Wisconsin farmsteaders; cheesemaking moved from being a traditional domestic art, largely done by women, to a mainstay career undertaken by men on the farm]

In these tiny headnotes, I need to gesture  toward the historical context in which the recipe contributor is living/working/cooking. for the Hooks, this meant describing how, in the early 1920’s, the state of Wisconsin invested heavily in the technology and infra-structure needed to become the center of industrialized cheese making in the United States. [This description obscures the state’s artisan cheesemaking roots; Swiss, German, and later Italian immigrants have been making small batch and high-quality stuff consistently since the mid-19th Century]

Its a fascinating and well-documented story. [Apparently not sufficiently well-documented] I was introduced to it by the former head of tourism for Wisconsin at the conference on American Regional foodways that Jan Langone gave at the University of MIchigan 5 years ago. The best piece to come out of that conference was Ari Weinstien’s white paper on Wisconsin Cheese making, which he published both on his blog and in the newsletter his business, Zingerman’s Deli. Wisconsin Public Radio did a fine piece on it as well. [I’ve done roughly this much research into the California wine industry; does this give me license to write in a nationally distributed book that California didn’t make wine before 1960, until an advertising executive ordered everybody to get with it and then hundreds of vineyards sprung from the ground and began producing wine?]

Like so many of the recipe contributors in One Big Table, the Hooks deserve a book of thier own, a book that details the history of American cheese making and wisconsin cheese making, a book that records how brilliantly the state of Wisconsin identified a hole in the nation’s industrial agriculture and in a shrewd bit of economic developement [the “state” that you’re talking about is, fact, greatly influenced by the farmers and cheesemakers themselves — they were well organized, and Hoard himself became governor of the state; one could argue that this isn’t a story of some bureaucrat in an office forcing people away from their charming little gnome houses into brutal cheese factory labor, it’s a story of passionate, self-determined people using education and science to improve not just production, but also safety and overall quality of product], moved to fill it, a book that considers the shift away from the sort of self determination of family farm life to the wroker-be head set of being an employee in a factory farm, a book that places the family Hook just where they live: at the nexxus of cultural change. Sadly, as one of many stories in One BIg Table, this wonderful, 200-year long story, must be distilled to a few lines.

But East Coast bias? rant? not from this Buckeye.

Best
Molly

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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25 Comments

  1. Yeah, Miss Molly likes to skim over details. I recall her recipe that called for “2 cups beer” – as though all beer styles taste alike and are interchangeable… no response.

  2. Ari Weinstien? I assume she means Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s Deli. If she can’t get the correct name of someone active in the cheese community right now, I certainly don’t trust her “knowledge” of the cheese industry from 80+ years ago.

  3. Midwesterner 12/02/2010

    Clearly, the book’s author already having chosen her theme/meme, simply looked for and found supporting “facts”. A fine example of modern “reporting”.

  4. I consider it a personal offense to this Wisconsinite, right up there with the “Happy cows come from California” ad campaign. It makes me wonder who fact checks books these days, even a cookbook. If you’re going to publish something and put your name behind it, get it right.

    Plus I’ve lived on the east coast and Ohio is barely the Midwest. In my opinion, the Midwest starts in Indiana. I don’t know what Ohio is, but you’d have to argue good and hard (with verifiable facts!) to convince me it’s the Midwest.

  5. Minnesotian 12/02/2010

    Give her hell, James!

    If this is how she deals with one aspect of her “factual” book, I will have trouble believing anything else she writes as facts.

  6. Ugh. If there’s one argument to be made that the words in the book were not Molly’s own, it’s that she can’t proofread her own emails. Embarrassing.

    And Lindsay, I’m with you. (http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=24413)

  7. RussC 12/02/2010

    Someone who had a relatively successful career as a journalist (of some kind) at the NY Times, should know better. This is a case of – “the book is already published and I’m on a PR campaign. Please find my email reply a satisfying acknowledgment of my respect for your Midwest pride. At this point I can’t retract what I said, so I’ll move along now and complement the few fine people I met who were from Wisconsin, and hey, I’m just like you, a Midwesterner, born in Ohio, so I can’t be all that bad.”

    Laughable.

  8. Nice work, James. This dairy farmer’s daughter thanks you for your dedication!

  9. Sarah 12/02/2010

    The author comes across as a ditz who still won’t acknowledge facts that screw up her book. Best revenge, Badgers? Treat it like a political issue and write bad reviews documenting her major factual errors on Amazon, etc. MSM / Coasts-only-matter snobbery applies not just to politics, but to cookbooks, too. Get even on the “Internets”…! [You may also want to reference the U.S. Supreme Court case that set milk prices based on the distance to WI.]

    One more thing: Lack of spellcheck in emails = lack of respect to those email recipients.

  10. David Foureyes 12/02/2010

    James – You are doing the work of the God’s.

  11. Nicely done, chief. I hate the self-directed snobbery of Midwestern transplants to the coast, especially when these same people used to haunt Devon and Argyle and Chinatown and the haute Chicago meccas (Tru, MK, Japonais, etc.) alike with aplomb.

    Minimizing the history of Wisconsin cheese production is absurd. She has clearly never been to Mars Cheese Castle.

  12. Jess F 12/03/2010

    Well, this Wisconsin-bred Californian was pleasantly surprised to find that two of the three cheeses on her cheese plate at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Bay Area were from Wisconsin. A Mindoro blue, and a Dante cheddar? if I remember correctly.

    Slightly surprised they didn’t fall back on the local perfectly excellent artisan cheeses, but happy to see the hometown (state) represent!

    I can’t believe how egregiously someone can dis on the Wisconsin cheese tradition. Though perhaps this controversy is just what she was hoping for to sell more books! Except that people probably don’t buy cookbooks for the controversial historical background.

  13. gromit 12/03/2010

    Someone else already pointed out the “Ari Weinstien” error (it’s actually Weinzweig). But also, it’s Jan Longone, not “Langone”.

    -g

  14. A side question, if I may. I have been looking for some time for a book on american food and cuisine. How does this one compare to the NY Times books that came out a couple of months ago, by Amanda Hesser?

  15. Author

    I haven’t seen the Hesser book, so I can’t answer that — and to be perfectly honest, I can’t even give you a fair assessment of “One Big Table” beyond the bit I’ve detailed above. There may well be plenty of good aspects to it, but when the first thing you look at in detail is profoundly inaccurate, it skews your whole perception of the work….

  16. Sing it brother! You’re doing the work of the angels.

  17. Thanks James. By the way, on the point you make about Midwestern food, I am with you. I am from Tuscany, and moved to Chicago a couple of years ago. And I fell in love with Midwestern food. But when I say that to my non-Midwestern friends, they laugh at me. I guess because they are stupid.

    That’s why I started my blog actually: to try and explain to non US folks how US food (and Midwestern in particular) is amazing.

    And Wisconsin must be the most underrated State I have ever seen. It is 1) beautiful, 2) full of the nicest people and 3) full of good places to eat. Cheese included.

  18. A former eastcoaster, I adopted Wisconsin as my home 15 years ago and am exceedingly proud of the dairy tradition (along with all the other wonderful, heritage, agricultural traditions) of this state. I believe cheese is life (note the dedicated cheese drawer in my fridge) and a writer and, as such, find your rant here both excellent and appropriate. I’m sick to death of coasties treating the midwest as “flyover” country and offended by authors who can engage in critical discussion. All she did was reiterate her incorrect data… wth? You know what? Screw ’em. The less they rest of the country considers us relevant, the more we can keep our awesomeness to ourselves.

    Viva Wisconsin!!!

  19. Nice job James. Fascinating reading. Thanks.

  20. Coastal Midwest Defender 12/06/2010

    On this topic, would the proprietors of, at least, Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Brasa and Madison’s Old Fashioned be willing to establish a couple of New York City satellites? I, non-corrupted WI/MN expats, and those to whom I’ve proclaimed your greatness would certainly welcome the midwestern soul food invasion.

    BTW, nice expose James.

  21. Jill T 12/06/2010

    It’s my understanding that Northern Europeans were attracted to the limestone river valleys of the Upper Midwest because they knew from the home country that the combination of plentiful water and limestone caves made the perfect setting for making cheese and beer. In other words, they were not only making cheese around here for decades before 1920, but they settled here for that express purpose.

    James, thanks for defending our honor here in flyover land. If O”Neill’s too lazy and indifferent to check her facts, why didn’t she just call it “Recipes From the Nation’s Best Home Cooks With Whom I can be Bothered”?

    Is her next book “The Hudson: America’s Biggest River”?

  22. Hi,

    Thanks for this article. I loved the detail you provided. Unfortunately, I just bought this book for someone who IS from the Mid-West. Geeze…