A Pilgrimage From Rat Trap to Sweet Home
The Handy Andy convenience store near my hometown sold rat-trap cheese. At least that’s what we called it in Georgia, in the 1970s. I’m not sure where the nickname originated. Maybe the reference was to rat bait.
We ate it in the parking lot, with sleeves of crackers and tins of sardines, its hue a not-of-this-world orange, with a texture that straddled cheddar and polyester. And a red wax rind. Stored beneath a see-through plastic dome. Sliced into wedges with a countrified guillotine. Wrapped in wax paper.
I recall rat-trap cheese fondly; not so fondly that I get all misty-eyed about it, but fondly enough that, nowadays, whenever I eat a great hunk of cheese I flash back to Handy Andy.
My fascination with cheese continued in the late 1980s, when I flirted with brie. I would like to blame the Reagan-era bourgeoisie ascent for my highbrow affectation, but I can’t. That’s because I ate most of my brie at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta. If you know scruffy Little Five, you also know that the name—“The Yacht,” as we called it—was ironic. And so, it follows, was their cheese plate: a wedge of so-called domestic brie, draped in a cloak of crust, baked until runny, and accompanied by mealy apples. I can’t recall any of my friends ordering it. They wisely bought cheese-steak sandwiches, juicy beef swaddled in provolone.
My buddy Charlie, who worked the kitchen, hated serving brie. It offended his masculinity. Charlie told me that every time he served a cheese plate, his penis shriveled. I think he was joking.
Goat came next. Specifically, Belle Chèvre goat cheese, from Elkmont, Alabama. I first tasted it at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham—baked grits, larded with Belle Chèvre goat, sauced with beurre blanc, and scattered with thyme and country ham! That was the first time I realized that Southerners made cheese. And that was the first time I tasted goat cheese that didn’t smack of chalk and petroleum and, in an age when their cheeses were far superior, French condescension. (By the way, the Highlands baked grits dish is still on the menu today. It’s still damn good. And so is the cheese itself, now made by Tasia Malakasis, a corporate refugee who knew her future when she tasted it.)
Inspired, I went home and chucked the block of cream cheese I was fond of slathering with pepper jelly and serving with Triscuits to impress my dates. Soon, I wooed belles with logs of Belle Chèvre, topped with that same pepper jelly and smothered on toasted pistollettes. I was worldly. I was on the make.
I stuck with goat for a while. Judy Schad, cheese maker at Capriole in Kentuckiana, was my next crush. (“Kentuckiana” is a euphemism that Southern-focused folks in Indiana use, when they don’t want to accept that they ended up on the wrong side of the river.)
A woman with a warm smile and intimidating forearms, Judy milks her own goats and ages her own cheeses. Her O’Banon gets a rub in bourbon and a wrap in chestnut leaves. That might conjure some sort of hackneyed faux-Southern spa treatment, but the results are lovely.
Despite the goofy name, Judy’s Old Kentucky Tomme is a serious effort, influenced by traditional French mountain cheeses. Ditto her Wabash Cannonball, a mold-rinded round, with the taste of funked cream and the look of ash-strafed kaolin.
Then came my Louisiana idyll. I started with a cow’s-milk cheese, Catahoula, which is also the breed name of the state’s official dog. Catahoula cheese, as made by Chicory Farm, was ripe as a cur in heat. Alas, our relationship didn’t last. Chicory’s quality nosedived. Last I heard, they moved their kennel to Canada.
In the aughts, I discovered the cheeses of John Folse’s Bittersweet Plantation Dairy. Folse is a perpetual motion machine. He directs a culinary school. He writes doorstop books, like The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine, that earn the heft of their titles. He manufactures frozen seafood gumbo that actually tastes like gumbo. And now, in league with a couple of Bulgarian-born artisans, he makes yogurts—and cheeses. The cheeses, especially the triple-creams, are transcendent. I’ve grown especially partial to Bittersweet’s Fleur-de-Teche. I revel in the sweet pliancy of the cheese, and in the perverse knowledge that, way down in Southwestern Louisiana, cow’s milk cheeses are not supposed to achieve excellence. Something to do with the summer humidity. And access to the wrong sort of grazing grass. And ignorance of artisanal cheese-making traditions. Folse proved the wags wrong. And so did two other cheese makers, similarly situated in the climatically disadvantaged nether lands of Georgia, where I was born, and Alabama, where I first tasted good Southern cheese.
Sweet Grass Dairy, down in Thomasville, Georgia, near the Florida line, widely distributes its cow and goat cheeses. I’ve seen their Holly Springs, an aged goat with a pecan-scented top note, on cheese trolleys in San Francisco and New York City; Whole Foods also sells their stock. But don’t hold popularity against them. After all, Gorgonzola gets around, too.
And as it’s grown, Sweet Grass has lost none of its commitment to sourcing good milk from free-grazing goats and cows. Nowadays, I pledge my troth to their Green Hill, a bloomy-rinded, Camembert-like refutation of the brie-like substance I once smeared on sliced apples at The Yacht.
And still I wander. Last month, I revisited Sweet Home Farm, in Elberta, Alabama. I knew the backstory: I knew that Sweet Home dates to 1985, when Doug Wolbert and Alyce Birchenough moved south from Michigan. I knew that when they married in 1978, Doug gave Alyce a Jersey cow for a wedding present, and that she soon traded it for a Guernsey, which is a better milk producer. I knew that Alyce learned to make cheese, in part, by studying Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. And I knew that, owing to its dedication to hand work, and taking into account the maxim that scarcity sells, Sweet Home does not ship its cheeses.
What I had forgotten was how unassuming the farmstead is. Situated at the end of a dirt lane, amid a stand of pecan trees, the creamery and sales office are set in a hutch of a building that resembles a small-town tanning salon, or maybe a third-tier taxidermy shop.
More important, I had forgotten just how great Sweet Home’s cheeses are. “Freshly mown grass.” That’s what my wife, Blair, said when she tasted Perdido, the ash-sandwiched cow’s milk wheel I brought back to Mississippi.
“Maybe clover,” added Blair, a woman with a far better palate than my own. She went on to say lots more, also gushing effusively about their Bayside Blue.
In an effort to synthesize her comments, I came up with this: Sweet Home Farm Perdido is to rat-trap cheddar as mortadella, crafted from heirloom hogs by Italian obsessives in Emilia-Romagna, is to rag baloney, the emulsified-and-pressed, chicken-and-pig-lip product known to some as “Mississippi round steak.” Actually, that sounds nothing like what she said, but this is my life in cheese.