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Review: Reinventing the Wheel

Gretchen Sneegas reviews “Reinventing the Wheel” (2017), by Bronwen and Francis Percival.

Published onDec 11, 2018
Review: Reinventing the Wheel

Bronwen Percival and Francis Percival. Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. University of California Press, 2017. xiii, 246 pp.

Reinventing the Wheel (2017), written by London cheese buyer Bronwen Percival and her food writer husband, Francis Percival, journeys into the science and the art of making superlative cheeses. The Percivals weave together myriad disciplinary perspectives traversing animal and food science, microbiology, history, and science and technology studies. They also integrate interviews and site visits with farmers, dairy industry professionals, and researchers. Furthermore, the Percivals draw on their own situated personal histories to examine cheesemaking from numerous angles, whether produced through the tacit experiential knowledges of cheesemakers or the formalized expertise of scientists. The book incorporates these many sources and viewpoints to explore the central question facing today’s artisan cheesemakers: namely, whether and how small-scale, raw milk cheesemaking can survive in today’s industrialized dairyscape. The informational and disciplinary diversity presented throughout the book mirrors the integral role of diversity—microbial, genetic, biological, geographic, economic, and otherwise—which shapes the world of cheesemaking.

Diversity is central to how the Percivals define what they call “real cheese”: “a manifestation of wider biodiversity, a food that exploits all of the resources and raw materials of the farm, from the botanical to the microbial” (25). On the other end of the spectrum, they argue, lies the “structured brutality” of industrial cheese production (18). At its heart, industrialization is a project of simplification—the antithesis of diversity. Over the course of the book, the authors highlight how trade-offs between simplification versus diversity, consistency versus exceptionality, and standardization versus flavor have emerged from the ever-tightening articulation between dairying and capitalism. The book draws on the cutting edge of microbial research to ground “traditional” practices, such as aging cheese on wooden shelves, within the scientific literature as well as to examine the detrimental impacts of decreased diversity.

The Percivals’ examination and interpretation of the unintended—and oftentimes, highly disruptive—consequences of industrialization echo more explicitly scholarly work, such as James Scott’s exploration of the ecological violence of large-scale timber production in Seeing Like A State (1998) or Julie Guthman’s critique of codifying organic standards in Agrarian Dreams (2004). Yet besides touching on the implications for human, animal, and environmental health, the authors highlight what may be a less well-known effect: changes to the cheeses themselves. For instance, what we think of today as the quintessential “muscular granularity and savor” of cheddar is actually a far cry from the “mellow nuttiness” lauded in descriptions from the end of the nineteenth century (208). As cheese factories began pooling milk from many farms, high doses of starter were added to control possible contamination. Thus, despite being “a cheese whose self-definition is firmly rooted in traditional practice,” cheddar production over the last century has shifted from an eight-hour process to a mere five and a half hours (211). Similarly, the ubiquitous bloomy white rind and pale flesh of modern camembert emerged only in the 1930s when cheesemakers began inoculating with high, homogenous doses of Penicillium candidum in an effort to control the more uneven results of ripening cheeses with wild blue mold from the environment.

One might think, with their firmly anti-industrial politics, that the Percivals would be resolute supporters of protected designation of origin policies such as the French Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) regulations. Such schemes aim to protect and market the names of certain foodstuffs by codifying strict regulations for what practices and geographic locations are permitted to carry the label of, say, a Camembert de Normandie, Roquefort, or Brie de Meaux. Yet the authors view such efforts to define “authentic” food as an exercise in making and policing arbitrary boundaries. As a result, farmers force their cheeses to conform to externally imposed standards rather than building on the localized particulars of their herd, pasture, and farm. In an ideal world, the Percivals argue, cheesemaking will shift back to a system of “dairy permaculture” in which farmers work with, not against, the unique qualities of their farm ecologies, in a diverse assemblage of milk microbes, pasture flora, wild yeasts, and heritage breeds (237).

There are some limitations to the Percivals’ argument for a dairy ecology that trades efficiency for complexity and opens up economic space for small- and mid-sized producers. To my mind, the authors do not sufficiently make the case for farmers to embrace what is a deeply labor- and time-intensive enterprise. Yes, such cheeses taste incredible, make the farmer more money than selling milk on the commodity market (although not that much more, compared to the AOP designation premium for wine), and are far less environmentally detrimental than their industrial counterparts. Yet how many farmers care to hand-milk a surly herd of cows twice daily, then spend an additional six, eight, even twelve hours making cheese from that milk? In a period characterized by increasing farm consolidation, sometimes with the number of farmstead cheesemakers for a particular style numbering in the single digits, is the economic advantage offered by dairy permaculture enough? I will admit to some skepticism as to whether the Percivals’ somewhat utopian vision is sufficient to encourage systemic change on a global scale.

While written for a lay audience, Reinventing the Wheel has much to offer all who are interested in intersections of science and tradition within dairy and their implications for the world of cheesemaking. The Percivals respond to the anxiety that the high-modernist project of industrialization and simplification has decimated the diversity of our foodscapes across cultural and environmental domains. However, in highlighting the work of cheesemakers who seek to revive and sustain diversity within the cheese landscape, the authors also gesture to the resilience of the “dairy ecology” community and those invested in its long-term success. Much has been lost, but much also stands to be gained through the subversive power of “real” cheese.


Gretchen Sneegas is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Georgia. Her dissertation research analyzes the production of farmers as environmental subjects in the context of shale gas development, with land grant colleges forming a key institutional node facilitating the negotiation of knowledge, expertise, and power. Gretchen holds a dual BA in Germanic Studies and Theater and Drama from Indiana University and an MA in Food Studies from Chatham University. Her work has been published in Agriculture and Human Values, Extractive Industries and Society, and Graduate Journal of Food Studies.

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