Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Summer of the Year I Turned 45

My mother got sick the summer she turned 45. A cigarette smoker since age 16, she stopped smoking that spring because she was already having trouble breathing. So at age 13, I inherited her job of driving the hay baler that summer, listening hard to understand the shouted directions of how to navigate corners and contours from my father standing on the wagon behind me. He stacked the small square bales chugging out of the chute one by one, grabbing each with a hook in his right hand and throwing them above his head with his left, until a load of almost 100 bales were stacked to withstand the bumpy trek back to the barn by the hired man.

My mother never got better. She was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that afflicts many people and a word that I had heard before. So I never really worried. That fall, I stopped taking the morning bus to school and took over my mother's chores on the farm, taking a quick shower when we were done with the cows, curling my hair as fast as I could in the mirror over the sink upstairs, and then having dad drop me off at school. I grew up in farm country, so it shouldn't have been embarrassing to be dropped off at school in an old farm truck, but when you're a 13-year-old girl, everything is embarrassing. I am ashamed to say I worried more about the look of that farm truck than I did the health of my mother.

My mother died the summer she turned 53. The eight years between diagnosis and the grave were not pretty. She became confined to the four walls of the old farm house's living room, filled with the whir of machines that helped her breathe. By the time I finished high school, Mom wasn't getting better. So Dad made me a deal that if I turned down the scholarship to the journalism school I'd been offered, and instead commuted from home to the local college, helped him farm and take care of mom, he'd pay my tuition. So I did. And I am ashamed to say I resented that decision because I worried more about missing the full college experience than I did the health of my mother. Her asthma won during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. The next year I moved to Idaho to become a news reporter. The year after that, my dad remarried. And life marched on.

This is the year I turn 45. And summer will soon be upon us. I was 21 when my mother died. Sitting in the church pew next to my father during her funeral, I counted in my head how many years there were between ages 21 and 45. I've never been good at doing math in my head, which has always frustrated my father, a math genius, to no end. I suspect that's why he taught me how to play cribbage when I was six years old: he figured making 15's and 31's and counting cards would help. It didn't. To this day, I have to find a pen and paper or a calculator to do even simple addition or subtraction. So at age 21, sitting in that church, I kept myself from crying by trying to figure the math of how many years I had left before I got sick like she did. And I've been on a dead run ever since.

During the past 24 years, I've been described several ways, the nicest perhaps being "pushy," the not-no-nicest starting with a "b" and ending with "itchy." One boss described me as a snowplow. Another told me I was like a bull in a china shop. When my daughter was young, she would choose the jugs of milk at the store by which Sassy Cow Creamery "cow card" they carried. You can imagine her delight the day she found one that read: "Darlene: her pushy personality always gets her to the front of the herd." She immediately removed it from the jug, thrust it at me, and said, "This cow is just like you, Mom!" It's been on our fridge ever since.

For the past 24 years, I've lived my life in anticipation of this summer, trying to get as much accomplished as possible, traveling to as many places I can, and earnestly raising my daughter to adulthood, because the most significant woman in my life got sick when she was 45 years old. I'm in good health. I've never smoked. I've never found a brand of alcohol I enjoy, and I seem to be one of the few people who's never tried drugs. There's no doubt that I need to exercise more, and I probably drink too much coffee. But I'm doing fine. No life-threatening diagnoses so far.

That's why a Friday afternoon two weeks ago meant so much to me. My husband and I took my dad and stepmom (who after 22 years in my life, I've started introducing as "mom") to Baumgartner's in Monroe for Limburger sandwiches and a game of Euchre. A group of Green County cheesemakers walked in and bought each other a beer. Several came over to say hello, so I introduced them to my parents. And then something amazing happened.

One of the cheesemakers, who knows my personality, and graciously chooses to overlook the "itchy" parts, shook my father's hand and told him: "your daughter is changing the world." I nearly broke down in tears. Is there any bigger compliment from a colleague? I don't know if my father heard him, because the tavern was full, his hearing aid wasn't working properly, and we would soon leave to find a quieter place. But I heard him. And it made all the difference. The summer that I turn 45 will come and go and I will keep on keeping on. I know I've got another 45 years in me.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Got (too much) Milk? As Wisconsin Dairy Gets Bigger, Progress Comes With a Price

When this week's news hit that Grassland Dairy in north-central Wisconsin was ending milk contracts with between 65 to 75 Wisconsin dairy farmers, my first thought was: this is the beginning of the squeeze on medium-sized, Wisconsin-owned processing plants. Sure enough, news soon leaked out that nearby Nasonville Dairy in Marshfield, had also sent letters to about 20 area farmers on March 17, informing them their dairies would be dropped from pick-up because that cheese factory had recently lost a cheese contract and no longer needed their milk.

Keep in mind, these are not small factories. They are good-sized facilities employing hundreds of people. Grassland processes more than 3 million pounds of butter, cream cheese and milk powder a year, while Nasonville makes more 2 million pounds of Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Asiago, Brick, Muenster, Hispanic styles, Parmesan, Romano and Provolone at two different state-of-the-art facilities.

While Grassland's predicament can be blamed on Canada (our neighbor to the north just implemented a new milk pricing structure, making it more cost efficient for Canadian processors to purchase milk from their own dairy farmers), the action taken by Nasonville, and I fear more Wisconsin-owned factories in the immediate future, is troubling.

To put it simply, big Wisconsin cheese factories that are not locally owned (more on this shortly) can and do purchase out-of-state milk cheaper by the semi-tanker than they can from the 10 small local dairy farms down the road. With a glut of milk in the upper Midwest, it's a buyer's market, and many big factories take advantage of cost differences by bringing in cheap milk from afar.

It wasn't always like this. In the past 15 years, dozens of family-owned cheese factories that had decades of relationships with multi-generational local dairy farms and who forged long-term contracts with farmers who were essentially their neighbors, have either merged or been bought out by big companies. And most of those companies aren't American. Today, of 127 cheese plants in Wisconsin, more than 15 of the biggest are owned by foreign companies.

For example: 
  • Saputo Inc., a Montreal-based Canadian dairy company that is the tenth largest dairy processor in the world, owns and runs some of the state's biggest cheese plants, whey processing plants and dairy processing facilities in Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Waupun, Lena, Black Creek, Reedsburg and Almena. 
  • Agropur, a large agricultural cooperative headquartered in Quebec, owns four ingredient-processing and cheese plants in Luxemburg, Weyauwega, LaCrosse and Appleton. 
  • Arla Foods, an international cooperative based in Denmark, and the largest producer of dairy products in Scandinavia, owns a huge cheese plant in Kaukauna.
  • Emmi, a Swiss milk processor and dairy products company listed on the SWX Swiss Exchange, owns Roth Cheese in Monroe and Platteville. 
  • Last, but, oh my, certainly not least, is Lactalis, a multi-national dairy products corporation based in France. Lactalis is the largest dairy products group in the world. It owns two large cheese plants in Belmont and Merrill and cranks out more President Brie than one can imagine.

What does this mean for Wisconsin dairy farmers?

It means the local cheesemaker up the road they've been selling milk to for the past 20 years - and the same factory that their father probably sold to before that - is now owned by a stranger who values the company's stock price over a handshake deal with a local farmer trying to earn enough money to send his kids to college.

It means that large dairy farmers who have spent the past decade spending money to get bigger rather than getting out are now worrying whether they will have a milk contract in 30 days.

It means small dairy farmers trying to break into the business are trying to find a buyer for their milk. Take for example, T.J. Grady, who will turn 21 in May. T.J's a good-hearted kid who I've watched grow up into a hard-working man and build a small dairy near Oregon, Wisconsin with his father. T.J. has been slowly and steadily building his herd of 25 cows with a dream of farming full-time. In 2015 and 2016, T.J. took classes at UW-Madison, earning a dairy farm management certificate, a pasture based dairy certificate, and completed courses needed for a certificate from the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.

A few months ago, a neighbor who was milking 50 cows sold out due to a combination of health and financial reasons. "I was doing some research about getting an FSA loan and buying his herd, and renting their facilities. But I don't think I would be able to find anyone to pick up extra milk, with the over supply in the market right now," T.J. says.

T.J. took the news of nearly 75 farmers losing their milk contracts with Grassland especially hard, as most were small dairy farmers like him. "This is very disheartening to me, as someone who studied farm management and hopes to operate my own dairy someday. I can't imagine how terrifying it would be to get a letter in the mail saying that your milk will no longer be picked up. I had a professor in school that said, 'In Wisconsin, it used to be that if you milked 10 or 1,000 cows, there would be a market for your milk.' Unfortunately with the ups and downs of today's commodity market and the consolidation of dairy farms, coops, and milk processors, that doesn't seem to be the case any longer."

Friday, March 24, 2017

When Cheesetopia Sells Out Quickly: Avoiding Hate Mail

So if you've tried to purchase tickets to Cheesetopia lately, you're well aware the event sells out quickly every year. This year was an all-time record - Cheesetopia Minneapolis sold out in seven hours. Yeehaw!

Of course, successful events are amazing, but the resulting hate emails, voicemails, texts and actual postage-stamped letters from people complaining they didn't get tickets is a little depressing. 

That's why this morning, I posted on Facebook an opportunity for folks to win tickets to Cheesetopia. Every day between now and April 3, all you have to do is visit the Cheesetopia website, review the amazing list of 45 artisan cheesemakers and food producers who are attending, and then comment on the Facebook post by telling me who you're most looking forward to meeting, and why. In return, I promise to reply to your comment and practice my stand-up comedy skills. I'll pick one winner every day for 11 days. It's a win-win!

Click here to enter and comment on the newest post. If you already have tickets, or need a good smile, take a read through the comments - it's so nice to see people looking forward to meeting their favorite cheesemakers. It's nice to see cheese making people happy.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

New Age Macaroni and Cheese

I love macaroni and cheese. I have a habit of ordering it at restaurants whenever we go out. Because as much as I love my husband, his one fault is never making mac 'n cheese at home (and as you all know, cooking is not my thing). And although I consider myself the luckiest daughter-in-law ever (I could not ask for a better mother-in-law) her one mistake was making Kraft Dinner during my husband's childhood but adding no butter and using skim milk. The result is that she scarred her son against macaroni and cheese for life. Sigh.

That's why I was especially interested to read in this month's Cook's Illustrated (shockingly, the subscription is in my husband's name, but I like to read it and tell him which dishes to make, which as you can imagine, he just loves) about the easiest-ever macaroni and cheese. Reading the headline, I thought: "Finally - I should be able to make this at home." And then I hit the words: sodium citrate, and went: "Crap. Never mind." Because who has sodium citrate laying around? Uh, no one.

And then I googled sodium citrate and found it on Amazon (of course) for the low low price of $15 for a 16-ounce jar. Whoo-hoo. Back in business.

In case you're not familiar with how sodium citrate can change your life, let me fill you in. Sodium citrate is an additive that's used as an emulsifier in lots of foods, including jam, ice cream and candy. If you've ever made homemade mac 'n cheese, you know that using an aged cheddar or any aged cheese often results in a greasy, lumpy mess, even if you go to all the work of making a Bechamel sauce first and then fold in the shredded, aged cheese.

It turns out that you can skip the Bechamel if you dissolve a tiny bit of sodium citrate in water, bring it to a simmer and then use a whisk (or immersion blender if you have one) to add handfuls of shredded or crumbly aged cheese. Within five minutes, the sauce is creamy and homogeneous. And it's fast: add some cooked macaroni and you have a delicious mac 'n cheese in less than 10 minutes.

In its article on easiest-ever macaroni and cheese, Cook's Illustrated also does an excellent job of explaining why aged cheeses break up when heated: "Cheese is an emulsion of fat and water bound up in a protein gel. When it's exposed to heat, the fat liquefies. As it gets even hotter, the protein network begins to break apart, the emulsion breaks down, the fat and water begin to separate out, and the cheese begins to melt and flow. Then the protein molecules find each other again and begin to regroup, this time in clumps or strings rather than in that tidy gel formation. The result is melted cheese with a pasty, lumpy texture and pools of fat." Yep, been there. Done that.

Cook's Illustrated continues: "Adding sodium citrate doesn't simply adhere to the cheese proteins, it changes them. When you add it to a cheese sauce, the calcium ions in the cheese proteins are replaced with sodium ions. This changes the structure of the protein in such a way that the protein itself becomes a stabilizing gel, holding the fat and water together so the sauce remains super smooth."

The article goes on to provide additional ways of making mac 'n cheese without sodium citrate, including using a 1:1 ratio of American cheese to aged cheddar. It turns out that the emulsifying salts in processed cheese, when used in the correct ratio, will prevent a cheese sauce from "breaking." This eliminates the need to make a Bechamel sauce (hallelujah) but you do need to add a bit of Dijon mustard and a small pinch of cayenne pepper to give it a kick in the flavor butt so that it's not too bland.

I also like to also add browned panko bread crumbs to the top of my mac 'n cheese for an interesting texture, but, let's get real, what I like even more is skipping the entire kitchen experience and ordering mac 'n cheese at both The Old Fashioned and at Graze, two restaurants in downtown Madison on the capital square. Both use aged cheddars with Bechamel sauces. The Old Fashioned uses cavitappi noodles, and Graze makes their own shell-shaped pasta from white flour. Both are delicious. Every time I go there, I think: "I should take a picture." And then I eat it all.