A Tribute to Sally Jackson: Part IV

This is Part Four of a five part series devoted to pioneer cheesemaker Sally Jackson. See Part I here, Part II here, Part III here and Part V here.

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Debra Dickerson on a trip to Sally Jackson's Farm in the late 1990s:

I remember first selling Sally's cheese at Zingerman's in the mid-90s. I called to purchase cheese and joyfully for me, Sally agreed. There was only one cheese available at the time, wrapped in leaves. I asked her about the name. 'Cheese in leaves' I believe she said. At Zingerman's we were looking for some of the details surrounding the cheese to help build a sense of place and identity for customers. Sally quickly lost patience with my questions. I thanked her for her time and thought - well,  'Cheese with Leaves' it will be. Summoning my courage, I called again. This time I got Sally's husband Roger on the phone. We went on to have a riotous and most informative conversation. The cheese became 'Okanogan at Zingermans.'

A few years later Daphne Zepos, Kate Arding and I took a trip to see Sally and Roger. Kate (former cheesemonger and one of the founders of Culture Magazine) was buying Sally's cheese for Tomales Bay Foods at the time. When we arrived, Sally met us without an ounce of fanfare, she was all business. I was surprised at what a tiny woman she was, her hair tied back in a kerchief. I remember having to hustle to keep up with her.

I will never forget walking into Sally's dairy. Functional. Spotless. Wood scrubbed and worn. Everything was spotlessly clean. A wood burning stove, a very large cauldron to heat the milk, an impeccably organized aging room and the perfectly bundled wheels, wrapped in leaves and twine. And a basset hound looking at us through the door, lovingly. Sally gruffly snarled at the dog, named Doris, who madly wagged her tail and sauntered away. It was love.

But it was the canning jars on the window that linger in my mind, small jars filled with the most magnificent vibrantly colored wild flowers. A jar on every window sill, the light reflecting through the crystal clear water. Were the flowers in honor of our visit? No, I think not. This Sally Jackson is a very complex woman, I thought to myself.


We met Roger, a big bear of a man who was clearly enamored with Sally. He had a big handshake, with paws that felt like they were strong enough to hold the world together. And such a joyous fellow - always a smile and twinkle in his eye. Sally and Roger told us the story of their courtship in New York City and subsequent transcontinental trip across the country. About the energy grant from Jimmy Carter that enabled them to begin their cheese making venture. And hilarious stories about Steve Jenkins!

The next morning when we arrived back at the farm, Sally piled us all in the car and we went out to pick chestnut leaves. She would freeze them for use in the future, for wrapping cheese. It was a wonderful experience, and made us feel like we were able to compensate a bit for monopolizing their time. I remember those huge old trees, and Sally telling us stories about the people who planted them. I felt as if I was in an enchanted forest.

I have always been proud to sell Sally's cheese. I wish Sally and Roger much strength. I know they have the good wishes of all of us who were lucky enough to share their cheese and their story with others.

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Debra Dickerson, a longtime cheese industry veteran, works for Cowgirl Creamery in Petaluma, California.

Tomorrow:  Where it all began, and more.

A Tribute to Sally Jackson: Part III

This is Part Three of a five part series devoted to pioneer cheesemaker Sally Jackson. See Part I here, Part II here, Part IV here and Part V here.

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Laura Werlin on Sally Jackson:

The main thing I remember about Sally is that once you got her talking, she never seemed to stop. I, then a fledgling cheese book author, wasn't quite sure how to take her when I interviewed her for The New American Cheese, but she certainly was entertaining. How did this woman, practically blind, make cheese on her stovetop? Though I never got to see her farm, she sure painted a vivid picture. I kind of visualized Annie Oakley at the stove, stirring and stirring, in between sharpshooting or, in Sally's case, milking animals and doing farm chores. That may not have been the case, but that's somehow what I saw. She's truly an American cheese icon, which is why I chose to put her cheese on the cover of the book.

The New American CheeseShe certainly represents cheesemaking pioneers in that she continued doing what she did the way she'd been doing it pretty much since Day One. She wasn't all that concerned about innovating once she got her formula down. That said, her cheese WAS an innovation. Who, in this country, ever wrapped their cheeses in grape or chestnut leaves before she did it? Also, back when she started, no one would have had the nerve to give their cheese an eponymous name. Indeed, I don't know anyone who does that now? It was courageous of her to do that because in those days, Americans only bought cheeses that they'd already heard of -- cheddar, Monterey Jack, maybe Gruyere -- but Sally Jackson cheese? Then again, her distribution was tiny, so hers was a foodie's food, a chef's find, a jewel from northeast Washington that only insiders knew about -- and loved.

Though many people in this country, even cheese lovers, won't have ever heard of her, that doesn't make her contribution any less important. Knowingly or not, she helped pave the way for cheesemakers today by virtue of the quality of her cheese, the physical beauty of it, and the fact she did it her way.

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Laura Werlin has written four books about cheese, including the groundbreaking The New American Cheese (published in 2000), which featured Sally Jackson's cheese on the cover. Her most recent book, Grilled Cheese, Please!: 50 Scrumptiously Cheesy Recipes, will be released in March of this year. 

Tomorrow:  Debra Dickerson of Cowgirl Creamery recounts a trip to Sally Jackson's farm with fellow cheese mavens Daphne Zepos and Kate Arding.

A Tribute to Sally Jackson: Part II

This is Part Two of a five part series devoted to pioneer cheesemaker Sally Jackson. See Part I here; Part III here, Part IV here and Part V here.

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Cheese PrimerSteve Jenkins on Sally Jackson:

I shipped SJ's cheese to my extended family, fully six different addresses this past Christmas.  That's a measure of the regard I have for Roger and Sally.

First time I ever spoke to her was by telephone in the early '90s. I was feeling very full of myself, as usual, and I told her in high dudgeon that I was insulted that she existed without having first informed me, and how on earth could she be selling that cheese I had just seen in Balducci's and not to me at Dean & DeLuca.  She took it, and we commenced a long business and personal relationship, and I cultivated one, too, with Roger.

I often gave Sally a long and hard time about being so morose, so laconic all the time, and I actually succeeded a few times at jollying her out of her usual funk.  She even came all the way to Seattle when I was there on book tour, and I met one or both of their boys, too, which made me feel even more devoted to the family.  I wrote about her cheese in magazines and in my Cheese Primer. I talked at length about her and Roger and her cheese on NPR many times, I offered her cheese at innumerable lecture/tastings over the years, I sold her cheese over my counters with my own hacked up and calloused hands, and I made lots of folks irretrievable devotees of the Okanogan Wonderment for 20 years.

Sally and Roger cannot better be described than that they are American Treasures.


Steve Jenkins is the author of Cheese Primer. First published in 1996, it was one of the first good cheese books that helped introduce the concept of fine cheese to the American public.

Tomorrow: Author Laura Werlin on Sally Jackson

Sally Jackson Could be Forced to Close


Wrapped Cheese

The Washington State Dept of Agriculture has given Sally Jackson 30 days to upgrade her facilities or be forced to close.

As many know, Sally Jackson was one of the first of the new wave of cheesemakers in the Pacific Northwest. She started in 1979 and has been quietly making cheese ever since - that's 31 years and counting. Unfortunately, now her days could be numbered. State regulators are requiring the Jacksons to upgrade their facilities to meet the standards of a Grade A dairy. "They've allowed me to make cheese for thirty years and now all of the sudden I'm using unapproved milk," she said. "I'm struck dumb."

The problem stems, I believe, from the very fact of her longevity. In 1979, with few other cheese facilities operating in the state, regulators likely did not give much attention to this tiny farm making cheese way out in the middle of nowhere on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. As times changed, Jackson's operation was essentially grandfathered in. While she underwent the same inspections as other cheesemakers, the state allowed her to continue to make cheese without ever acquiring a formal Grade A dairy license - a requirement that did not exist in 1979 (or at least not in its current form). So at first blush, this situation looks to be at least in part a result of the state's inaction over the years.

Now, however, the regulatory environment is changing. As we've seen in other contexts, state and federal regulators are taking a closer look at small cheesemakers, and Sally Jackson has evidently become the most recent target of their scrutiny. Here's hoping that this can be resolved, as forced closure would be a really unfortunately scripted ending for one of Washington's longest running cheesemakers.

update: on December 17th, Jackson issued a recall of all of her cheeses due to possible e coli contamination. It's not clear if this notice is related to the later recall.

update: Bill Marler has copies of state inspection reports and other communications related to this situation here.

In Memory: Kathy Obringer of Ancient Heritage Dairy


Kathy Obringer

Last week cheesemaker Kathy Obringer of Oregon's Ancient Heritage Dairy passed away. According to husband Paul, she had a heart condition that turned critical suddenly. "It's so hard not having her here,"says Paul, "but she has left us a great reservoir of love."

Kathy and Paul started Ancient Heritage Dairy in 2006. Former city folk, their journey led them to the farming life after several of their children developed allergies. They went on to start the first all-sheep's milk cheesemaking operation in Oregon. Kathy, a painter and sculptor, found a new way to express herself in the art of making cheese; she developed the recipes for Ancient Heritage cheeses including the much loved bloomy-rinded Adelle and Valentine. Turns out Kathy was a natural and her cheeses became popular with cheese lovers all over the country. She continued to do fine art in her (rarer and rarer) spare time; you can catch a glimpse of her artwork on the labels of Ancient Heritage cheeses, which feature designs she painted.

I knew Kathy for just a few years as a cheesemaker. One of the things I found most striking about her is that she felt a mission that went well beyond the commercial enterprise of making cheese. She once said she felt joined, by the act of making cheese, to cheesemakers throughout the centuries, nurturing human health with their products. Kathy was a gentle soul whose passion for her family, her farm and her animals was evident in everything she did.

David Gremmels, owner of Rogue Creamery in Southern Oregon, visited the Obringer's farm several years ago with Max McCalman. He said that Kathy made a lasting impression on both of them. "Her talent, passion and commitment to cheesemaking taught me to see cheesemaking as art. She contributed greatly to Oregon's artisan cheese renaissance and she will be greatly missed by all of us in the cheesemaking community."

The Obringer family deeply appreciates all of your thoughts and prayers. While they request privacy during this very difficult time, they plan to hold an open house and celebration of Kathy's life next summer.

Kurtwood Farms

  Kurt Timmermeister, Kurtwood FarmsFor many Seattleites, Kurt Timmermeister needs no introduction. He's a native who is well known in food circles as the former owner of Belltown/later Capitol Hill favorite Cafe Septieme (he sold the restaurant in 2004). If you've been wondering where he went, here's the story: these days he's keeping busy at his 13 acre farm on Vashon Island, Kurtwood Farms, taking care of a growing herd of Jersey cows and making cheese.

Timmermeister discovered his love for food while attending college in Paris. While pastry is his passion (all of those perfect, flaky, buttery croissants...) when he came back to the Northwest he ended up cooking in restaurants and eventually owning them. He purchased property on Vashon Island (about a hour's commute from Seattle by ferry, in good traffic) in order to get away from the rat race; there he grew produce, kept chickens and pigs and renovated the island's oldest house.

Four acres eventually grew to thirteen, enough to do something with. Timmermeister says in the beginning he had no plans to make cheese; instead, he operated a raw milk dairy for a couple of years (in Washington, it is legal to sell raw milk if you are licensed to do so). He later moved from selling milk to making cheese, feeling in part that the risks of selling raw milk outweighed the rewards. He's currently got ten Jerseys and is milking four; plans are to ramp up the milk volume slowly over the next year or so.

Kurtwood Farms Washington

While Timmermeister never made cheese professionally prior to this new endeavor and freely admits he's learning something almost every day, his long and deep food background makes him a natural. Dinah, his first commercially available cheese, is off to an auspicious start. This camembert-style soft ripened cheese is everything you expect and hope it to be - delicate, creamy, mushroomy - and so good that it's got all of Seattle abuzz. He's also got an aged cheese in the testing phases; digging has just begun for a true aging cave on the property so he'll be working on that and perhaps other cheeses in the future.

Dinah | Kurtwood Farms

Oh, and there's also going to be a book about all of this, coming soon. Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land, is set for publication in January of 2011. Timmermeister describes it as part farm memoir, part guide to the work of a small farm. You can get a taste of day to day life on the farm on his blog here.

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Kurtwood Farms 18409 Beall Road SW Vashon Island, WA  98409

Dinah is available in Seattle at most places that sell good local cheese; also look for it on restaurant cheese plates in the Puget Sound area. It's also available on Vashon Island at Thriftway.

Fairaview Farm in Sequim, Washington

Fairaview Farm Sequim WAPennie Dutro Lujan grew up on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Her father, a doctor, had what she calls a 'hobby farm' where he'd retreat after long hours at work. Lujan remembers that the family was self sufficient in many ways, keeping cattle, chickens as well as tending a substantial garden. "Growing up then, local was walking out the door and picking vegetables and milking cows," she says. Using whatever milk she could find, she started making cheese in the 1970s. Lujan and her husband purchased their current farm in Sequim (pronounced skwim) in 1999. They started out growing lavender - the area is known for its lavender farms. Though the lavender operation was successful, she says its seasonal nature left her looking for something else. "My goal now is to show how important family farms are to communities." With just two Jersey cows currently, Fairaview Farm is making about 100lbs of cheese per week. This productivity is all the  more remarkable considering that Lujan has endured knee and leg problems all of her life; a recent knee replacement has her pain free and loving her new found freedom.

Fairaview Farm produces mainly Brie, Camembert and Cambozola. Right now the cheeses are available at the Sequim Open Aire Market and through a program called Sequim Locally Grown Mercantile, a micro-CSA program where customers place orders online.

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Fairaview Farm Pennie Dutro Lujan 813 Youngquist Rd. Sequim, WA  98362 360-681-2486