Cheese Makers Are ‘Living on the Wedge’

Nathan Adkisson and Nathan Adkisson

By Nathan Adkisson The Daily Northwestern

“That orange stuff in the supermarket is not cheese,” said Gaylon Emerzian. “That’s not American (cheese). It’s this wonderful stuff.”

Emerzian is an Evanston filmmaker who recently completed “Living on the Wedge,” an hourlong documentary about artisanal cheese makers in Wisconsin.

The film premiered in January 2006 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. It has since played on Wisconsin public television in a half-hour version and at the Evanston Public Library.

The idea for the film came when Emerzian was talking to a friend of a friend, Mari Koyne.

“Mari was traveling in Europe, and she was sending back really funny e-mails about castrating goats, living in tents and traveling across France trading food for room and board,” she said. “She told me a story about sleeping outside but being woken by a 600-pound sow that was next door.”

When Koyne, an Evanston native, returned, the two talked about creating a documentary together. Koyne was in Wisconsin when she was inspired to do a film on the growing artisanal cheese movement.

“The family farm is struggling,” said Emerzian’s husband and filmmaking partner, Roger Brown. “One way for them to survive is to get into niche markets.”

Instead of competing with the conglomerate farms that mass-produce cheese, they will create a very specific product that cannot be made anywhere else.

Mike Gingrich, who produces Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese in Dodgeville, Wis., makes his cheese unique by producing it only during the summer.

“We use raw, unpasteurized milk and only produce from about May 1 to the middle of October,” he said. “We start making cheese within 20 minutes of the last cow being milked, which makes it much, much fresher.”

Instead of passively observing the process, Koyne participated directly in the cheese making while filming the documentary.

“She got suited up, put on an apron and a hair net and helped us out for a day, ” Gingrich said. “Instead of asking us questions, she helped us out.”

Emerzian chose to do a film about cheesemakers because she was intrigued by how the American family farm is changing.

“I’m interested in the people who are doing the work to put food on the table,” she said. “People don’t want to stay on the farm because it’s hard and there’s no vacation.”

More people are leaving farms to move to more urban areas.

“The migration away from rural areas into the cities is the largest migration in human history,” Brown said.

Emerzian said she wants to create more interest in the family farm.

“I would like to see grants given for people in cities who want to experience the farm,” she said. “There still are some people who love the change of the seasons and take pleasure in small things.”

For these cheese makers, the art of cheese making is a large part of what it means to be an artisan.

“All the things you can say about wine – terroir, age, vintage – you can say about these cheeses,” Emerzian said. “The flavor they get in one batch may never be duplicated. … Why make cheese taste like France when you have this great American terroir?”

There is nothing wrong with the older type of farming these cheese makers use, Emerzian said.

“The film is a look at this method of farming that’s worked for millennia,” she said.

The price of artisanal cheeses is markedly higher than those in supermarkets.

“They can be $25 per pound,” Emerzian said. “But you vote with your pocketbook. If people want these farmers to survive and these cheeses to survive, they will pay for them. You don’t have to eat them every day.”

Emerzian said she and her husband are thinking about starting a search for the lost diamonds of Italy’s Medici family, eating great cheese along the way. Right now they enjoy Cocoa Cordona, a mild semisoft cheese encased in – you guessed it – cocoa powder.

Reach Nathan Adkisson at [email protected]