| It is too early in the morning to be driving, I was thinking as I got on the road to State College at 8:30 am on Saturday, October 28. Besides, who in their right mind would drive all the way to State College just to learn how to make mozzarella cheese?
But then why was it that, when I arrived at the State College Friends Meeting House, the other cars in the parking lot bore license plates from as far away as Virginia, Maryland and New York?
It was Heather House who d gotten me up here in the first place. House is the director of educational outreach for the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, an organization devoted to bringing together farmers and consumers in Pennsylvania and encouraging environmentally sustainable farming practices, and she has spent four years now figuring out what makes PASA members come out in droves. Since June of 2006, she has organized 26 PASA events, from field days (in which farmers welcome members to their farms for a day studying subjects like organic dairying) to marketing or cheesemaking sessions, and she has organized them all by herself.
PASA has only 5 full-time employees, and most of them operate out of an office in Milheim, PA. We're on really long leashes, House said. So I get all the credit when it goes well, and I get all the credit when it flops.
If the session Heather organized with the Cheese Queen Ricki Carroll on October 28 was any indication, it's been going pretty well indeed. When I finally arrived, late and drenched, class was already underway 60 people grouped around six tables were devoting their rapt attention to Ricki Carroll, a woman who has almost singlehandedly revived an American interest in Home Cheesemaking over the last 30 years. Each table, cluttered with handouts and tasting spoons, had at its center a large pot, large bowl and several utensils. I had missed the first steps of making farmhouse cheddar.
But the other folks at my table, who ranged in age from 25 to 65, were quick to catch me up, both on the cheddar and on their own interests. In fact, conviviality reigned throughout the entire afternoon. As we worked together with greater and lesser success, adding the rennet, cutting the cheese curds, straining the curds and putting them into our shiny new cheese presses, we learned a lot about cheese, but as much about one another.
Fully 20% of the people attending the cheesemaking event, according to Heather House, were farmers exploring the possibility of making their own cheeses. While House was amazed that so many farmers were interested in making cheese in our area, I was amazed at the opposite: who would have thought that almost fifty people, from all over Pennsylvania and elsewhere, would have traveled to State College, not as the first step in a business venture, but for their own edification? Who knew that PASA wasn't just for farmers?
Turns out my impressions of PASA and PASA events were pretty far off-base. While there was a good bit of talk about what's become known as food politics (including Ricki Carroll's de rigeur statement that If it comes out of a box, it's adulterated; if it grows in the earth [and you know who grows it], it's safe ), the conversation was remarkably free of the sort of hyperbolic talk that usually floats around among sustainable foodies. Instead, there was discussion what is the difference between homogenized, pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized (a question clarified by Tom and Donna Perry of Perrydell Farms, who supplied the milk for the days event)? What affects the flavor of your cheese, and why will you get better flavor if you use a locally processed milk? What exactly is raw milk, and what does it do to the cheesemaking process?
While we all shared a focus on cheese and a belief in sustainable foods and farming, the class didn't necessarily share much else. Attendees ranged from Grace Pilato, mother of mural artist Michael Pilato and a cooking teacher in State College, to Jackie Goodwin of Harrisburg, a winemaker by hobby who became interested in cheesemaking only so that she could eat her own cheese with her own wine. The passionate Goodwin confided that my goal is to go to every winery everywhere every one.
Sitting next to her, Sylvia Feldman of State College said she was there because I'm obsessed with food I like to learn about the processes, so that I don't take food for granted. Sara Steelman, former state legislator from Indiana, PA, provided a bit of history Steelman was one of the charter members of PASA. Long ago, as a graduate student in California, I made buttermilk cheese, she remembered. Now she's returning to the cheesemaking fold to hone a talent to sell at her church auction next year'a workshop on mozzarella and ricotta making.
No matter what our group had in common at the days beginning, we had much to share by days end a marvelous lunch of cheeses made throughout our class, the secrets of a batch of homemade farmhouse cheddar, and, perhaps most importantly, the sense of community that an organization like PASA can engender. Here we were, people from several states and many backgrounds, but we all said oooh together as we watched the pliant stretch of fresh mozzarella in Ricki Carroll's hands.