Interview: Kirstin Jackson, Author of It's Not You, It's Brie

refdp_image_0For several years, Kirstin Jackson has been captivating cheese interested readers with her witty and informative blog, It's Not You, It's Brie. Now she's unleashed her considerable talents in a longer format, and we have It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese- the book. Part travelogue, part tasting guide and part cheese encyclopedia, the book is a fabulous romp through the world of domestic cheese, with recipes for good measure. Like her blog, Jackson's book is smart, funny and irreverent all at once- in other words, totally absorbing. I'm thrilled to see an author stray from the worshipful, remote prose so common in books about cheese.... in It's Not You, It's Brie, Jackson brings the world of cheese and cheesemakers to to life, in all of their stinky, funky glory. Kirstin Jackson was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat about the book, how she got into cheese, and her take of the cheeses of the Pacific Northwest.

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Right away in the introduction, it's clear that this is going to be a different kind of cheese book. What did you have in mind when you were writing? 

Well, thank you! I wanted to write a book that explored why domestic artisan cheese is the way it is -i.e. awesome- through exploring its styles, flavors, and cultural and historical influences in-depth, but also keep it lighthearted. It was important to me to avoid writing a book that was too serious or exclusive, because enjoying and learning more about our artisan cheese is within everyone's grasp. That said, another aim in writing this book was to thoroughly appease my inner cheese geek by asking TONS of questions of the 48 different cheesemakers profiled in the book, and to travel around the country eating pounds of cheese in the name of research. I also went with a publishing house and editor that let me have a lot of fun writing- I could be a little... less traditional with my descriptions.

Tell us a little about your background. You went to UC Berkeley (majoring in anthropology, I believe?) and culinary school. How did that evolution into food come about? And then how did you arrive at cheese?

Immediately after graduating high school I went to culinary school, cooked for three years in restaurant kitchens, and then decided that I wanted to return to school to to write about food. That inspiration struck when I picked up my first Saveur magazine in the late nineties, but working in kitchens didn't provide me with the time to do actually write. A couple years later I transferred to UC Berkeley, and yes, studied cultural anthropology and worked as an interviewer and transcriptionist in the Regional Oral History Food Program. After Cal, I worked in a cheese shop and started managing a wine bar and directing their cheese program. I went on to teach- at Solano Cellars, the Cheese School of 18 Reasons, Murray's and beyond.

My love of cheese likely spawned from two things- first, a firm foundation in artisanal fermented milk. My parents used to drive me around Northern California cheese country as a child and teenager, and I quickly realized that cheese was a very, very good thing (and an excellent way to get a fifteen year-old to sit for hours in a car with their parents with "minimal" complaints). Second, as a student of anthropology, I'm enamored with the stories- cultural, geographical, political, everything- behind cheese.

There are some killer recipes in this book - I mean, crisped rice treats with Mayor of Nye Beach cheese from Rivers Edge Chèvre? Awesome. (That's on page 175 if you're following along at home.) Would it be fair to say that cooking with cheese requires a different kind of understanding of cheese?

Glad you like them! And, does cooking require a different understanding cheese?Sometimes. It can be fantastic to consider a cheese's flavors, textures and nuances so one can arrive at a stunning final dish that highlights the cheese like in a sheep's milk ricotta-pine nut cheesecake, or those crisped rice treats. But sometimes it's just as lovely to simply grate or crumble a cheese into a bechamel sauce, bake it with noodles, and top it with breadcrumbs and call it a delicious day. It depends how involved you want to get.

Based on your cheese related travels and tasting experiences over the past few years, what's your take on the cheeses of the Pacific Northwest?

I love them! We get some like Mt. Townsend, Beecher's, and Rivers Edge in the Bay Area, but oh how I wish we could get more of the Dinah I wrote about in the book, or the tasty little numbers that never leave your farmer's markets. The land the animals get to hang out on isn't bad either. In other words, if it wasn't so rainy, I'd move there.

What do you think the future of domestic artisan cheese looks like? Or, to put it a different way, what will we be eating in 10 years? 

Hopefully more buffalo milk cheeses. Hopefully more funky, washed rind, stinky, adventurous cheeses and blues. Many more blues. But more importantly, I hope that in ten more years, we'll be eating much more artisan cheese, period, not just more of a certain style, that we'll embrace artisan cheese's breadth.

Obligatory question - what's next?

I'm not sure! I might make a brief trip out of the U.S. to refresh my look at domestic cheese. Play around. Sometimes it's hard to really see what's in your own backyard when your head and tummy is so saturated. It would be hard to leave our good stuff for a long time, but I might take a couple weeks and go eat raw milk cheese and pet foreign animals elsewhere.

Thank you for hosting me on your blog, Tami. I'm very flattered to be here!


It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese By Kirstin Jackson Illustrations by Summer Pierre Perigee Books   240 pages  $19.00  hardcover

Three New Cheese Books for the Holidays

Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurs from a Maître FromagerMastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromagerby Max McCalman and David Gibbons (Clarkson Potter, 384 pages $40, hardcover)

There are many great cheese books available these days. You've got books about French cheese, Italian cheese, pairing wine and cheese, and American artisan cheese. There's even a book about Northwest cheese, of all things. But I'm going to make a big statement here, so brace yourself - in Mastering Cheese, McCalman and Gibbons have produced the essential guide to all things cheese.

I say this because Mastering Cheese is the most comprehensive book on cheese available today. It's what Steve Jenkins' Cheese Primer was when it was published 13 years ago - a complete, authoritative window onto the world of cheese. Covering cheese history, cheesemaking and the great artisan cheeses and cheesemaking regions of the globe (including the US), this book is intended to be a 'masters course' in cheese and certainly achieves that goal.

One of the things I most like about Mastering Cheese is that it's a teaching book and doesn't come across as a dry, strictly academic guide. Readers are engaged by the stories and photos, to be sure, but are also encouraged to play along and taste, pair and understand cheese is all of its marvelous complexity. So, for example, while there's plenty of discussion about the ins and outs of raw milk cheeses, there's also an eloquent discussion of the nuances of blue cheese, from the sweet so-called 'dessert' blues like Gorgonzola to salty, assertive raw milk Stichelton, along with some suggestions for putting together your own blue cheese tasting plate. There's discussions of the world's great cheesemaking regions like France, Switzerland and Italy as well as discussions about pairing, cheesemaking chemistry and how to develop a cheese palate.

So, really, if there is one book you need to buy for the cheese obsessed person in your life this holiday season, this is the one. [full disclosure: I am mentioned in this book and also contributed some photos, so consider my opinions accordingly].

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In a Cheesemaker's Kitchen | Allison HooperIn a Cheesemaker's Kitchen: Celebrating 25 Years of Artisanal Cheesemaking from Vermont Butter & Cheese Company

by Allison Hooper (Countryman Press, 112 pages, $19.95, paperback)

One of the pioneers of artisan cheesemaking in the US, Allison Hooper started Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. (VBC) with business partner Bob Reese in 1984. Her new book, In a Cheesemaker's Kitchen, celebrates their 25 years of success. This is a gorgeously photographed guide to using, cooking with and generally appreciating VBC's products - from cultured butter to fromage blanc to gorgeous French style cheeses like Couple and Bijou. Recipes from chefs including Eric Ripert, Michele Richard and Dan Barber show off VBC's products in a spectacular way: Ripert's goat cheese parfait with sweet potatoes and chives and Michele Richard's Creme Fraiche Cucumber Salmon (just to name a couple) look absolutely amazing. Credit the photographer? Well yes...but, credit the chefs, the cheese and Alison Hooper and Bob Reese for their pioneering spirits.


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The Cheese Chronicles | Liz ThorpeThe Cheese Chronicles: A Journey Through the Making and Selling of Cheese in America, From Field to Farm to Table by Liz Thorpe (Ecco Press, 400 pages, $15.99, paperback)

From her vantage point in the leadership circle at Murray's in New York, Thorpe presides over one of the centers of cheese in the US. The Cheese Chronicles is, at its core, a memoir of sorts that finds its narrative voice in Thorpe's career adventures tasting cheese and meeting America's cheesemakers. I have to admit, I was a bit worried about this book in the beginning, where Thorpe details her drunk-and-hungover-the-next-day exploits at Major Farm (makers of Vermont Shepherd cheese) - but perhaps that says more about me. Thorpe really hits her stride when she gets down to detailing farm visits and cheese tastings, and outlining the emerging trends that have led to the current artisan cheese renaissance. This book announces a new generation of cheese personalities and voices in the US; Thorpe's recent appearances on Martha Stewart's show, NPR Science Friday and in People Magazine are educating a new generation of consumers about great handcrafted cheese.

Upcoming Book Events November & December

  Artisan Cheese of the Pacific NorthwestThough the days may be turning chilly the events never stop! Here are some upcoming book related happenings I'll be stop by and say hi. And remember, this book makes a great holiday gift, right?

Saturday Nov 7th at the Hollywood Farmers Market in Portland 9am-noon

Sunday Nov 15th at Steve's Cheese 4th Anniversary Party in Portland 1-5pm

Friday Dec 11th dinner and discussion at Salt, Fire & Time in Portland 7:30pm