The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison
Oh, to be French and lactose intolerant. Luckily, I see my lone dietary restriction as a hearty challenge to see what diary products are worth suffering the slings and arrows of indigestion for. Milk? Not so much. Baked Brie? Pass me the Lactaid. Lately, while I’ve been cooling my heels in my hometown between academic gigs, I’ve been spending every Saturday morning at our farmer’s market with my mother and mainlining Capra Gia goat cheese. Goat milk is actually easier for people like me to digest, and it is also delicious. When I saw an entire book about not only cheese, but French cheese, I knew I had to honor the motherland and my newfound adoration of goat cheese. (She makes this cranberry chevre that is just… oh man…)
The Whole Fromage follows Kathe Lison on a trek through France to discover what makes French cheese the best in the world. Raised in Wisconsin on Kraft Mac & Cheese, Lison considers herself quite the cheese connesieur, but nothing can match the devotion of the French, who treat cheese as not only a delicacy, but living history. Avoiding the industrialized center that is Paris, Lison finds small farms in the middle of nowhere, treks up impressive mountains, and talks to people who still make cheese by hand in order to explore the history and contemporary significance of French cheese in a world seeking to standardize it.
I’ve been on a huge nonfiction kick recently. I’m not sure why—perhaps I am subconsciously nervous about my publishing program? Or perhaps I’ve caught the spirit of my friend Elle, who has trouble reading fiction because she finds our world so incredibly interesting. Of the eleven library books stacked precariously on my desk, six are nonfiction. I think it might be because no matter how bad a nonfiction book is, I usually end up learning something interesting, so it’s rarely a total bust. The same cannot be said for some novels I’ve read over the years and have willfully repressed from my memory for their poor quality. (Why do you think I need a book blog? My memory is fickle and downright mean at times.) So picking up The Whole Fromage sight unseen on NetGalley was a safer bet than picking up a random novel.
And my instincts were right: I learned a lot of interesting things about France and the cheesemaking industry. Lison mentions General Charles de Gaulle’s famous quote, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” a handful of times, but it’s only towards the end you realize that he wasn’t just being flippant. Before there was a unified France, each community—determined more or less by who could hear the local church bell—made their own kind of cheese, specific to their environment and resources. It’s very easy for Americans to forget that other countries’ cultures are just as nuanced and diverse as our own, and Lison’s exploration of French culture is a firm but gentle reminder. Each cheese tells the story of the people who made it, which explains the resistance by local farmers against the forces of industrialization and standardization. But Lison also explores that, ultimately coming down on a balance of industrialized and traditional cheesemaking that suits the cheesemaker.
Unfortunately, Lison’s much-praised voice—I’m still not sure what to make of the over-eager official book description, which uses cheese metaphors to describe it—falls flat. If she’d talked about her childhood more, or her experiences with cheese in America to contrast against her experiences with cheese in France, I think I would have enjoyed her as a narrator much more. And she does do this, but it’s not nearly enough. Lison spends much of the book rattling off history or adventures, but it’s rarely in any pointedly structured way. The second chapter, which briefly covers the history of cheese, should really start the book. It feels like a lot of backtracking back and forth for no particular reason, making it a meandering read. Still, she does have a knack for describing food; just writing this review makes me want to tear into the little plastic container of goat cheese I have from Capra Gia…
Bottom line: While The Whole Fromage has a lot of interesting historical anecdotes about cheese and its centrality to French culture, its flat, unengaging narrator and meandering tone make it not worth the effort. Pass.
I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.
The Whole Fromage will be released on the 25th—tomorrow!