Cheese has a rich history in the Pacific Northwest, wedged in between the arrival of the area’s first European settlers and the present-day artisan cheese movement.
Portland author Tami Parr, a University of Washington graduate, has lived in the area since her early teenage years. Visiting her aunt and uncle’s dairy farm in Wisconsin most summers growing up, she learned about the process of dairying cheese and began to respect it as an “intersection of animal, land and craft.”
Parr’s most recent book, “Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History,” was released by Oregon State University Press on Sept. 3. It is the second book she has published as part of the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project, which she started in 2004.
In a phone interview, Parr talked about her new book and what she calls the “artisan cheese renaissance.”
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Q: What made you want to write about the history of cheese?
A: It is sort of a lifelong thing. In 2004, I started the website (pnwcheese.com) and that was the point I really got serious and started to interview. It was a time when the local artisan cheese industry was becoming bigger. People were just starting to become interested in it. Because no one else was really writing about cheese at the time, I became sort of the default expert.
Q: Why did you write about cheese specifically in the Pacific Northwest?
A: Partly, I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest most of my life. It’s what I know on a deeper level. Also I feel like you can do a history book, you can cover the whole U.S., but when you do that, you sacrifice depth. For me, the Pacific Northwest is this perfect segment you can do in an amount of detail and stay interesting.
What we call the Pacific Northwest today was the last little bit of the U.S. that was not quote-unquote “settled” by Europeans. As a piece of land, it has its own unique historical story and in that way it also made sense to do as its own thing.
Q: What is your favorite place you visited for the book?
A: Trout Lake in Washington, which is east of Mount Adams right across Hood River from Oregon. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, a guy named Homer Smith made cheese in these naturally occurring caves, and these caves are still there. I did not have the equipment, but you can go in the caves yourself, and the old racks they used to sort the cheese on are still there. Talk about historical relics — it’s kind of a cool remnant of history.
Q: What do you think is responsible for the recent rise in artisan cheese making?
A: In the 1950s, food became industrialized. The number of cheese makers became very small. A mass movement in the ’60s decided this was kind of ridiculous. People moved from cities to farms …
That’s when the gradual rise of the cheese industry started. People moved, got goats and cows and started to sell cheese to live on their land. It slowly grew across the Pacific Northwest and different parts of the country. Starting in the 1980s and ’90s things started to really kick off. Now you have the local food movement — eating within 100 miles of where you live, all this stuff, and cheese is part of that. The shift between industrial food to local food has been a catalyst for the artisan cheese movement. I sort of hope that as much as people are interested in eating local food and cheese and all that, the history and background is what people need to know and understand.