The Goat Ladies of the Eighties

by Jake Abrams

It is a relatively recent phenomenon in the storied history of cheesemaking that Mountaineer, a cheese crafted by Meadow Creek Dairy in the humble Virginia Appalachians, can stand toe to toe with a Comté produced in the towering Alps of eastern France. After tasting some of the output from farms such as Jasper Hill in Vermont or Cato Corner in Connecticut, one might assume these cheeses are the result of a single farm tinkering with recipes and productions methods for hundreds of years, but this notion would be surprisingly incorrect.

American cheese makers have truly caught up to their European masters, and they have done so in an unbelievably brief period of time. As cheese-lovers in the 21st century, we are fortunate to be able to taste domestic cheeses that not only emulate European classics, but also reflect the unique terroir of the American landscape. Despite our current fortune, we have not always been this lucky. Artisanal cheese remained a mystery to the vast majority of Americans for a great deal of the 20th century. This, however, changed due largely in part to a group of exceptionally talented women who dared to rebel against the processed products that overtook American kitchens during the 1950’s and make food that was honest, sustainable, and most importantly, delicious.

Synthetic, mass-produced food arrived on America’s tables as a result of the massive war mobilization on the home front during the early 1940’s. Rural, localized cuisine became an old-fashioned concept as Americans developed a voracious appetite for products such as to Hamburger Helper: easy and cheap to produce, with flavor as a secondary consideration. This trend birthed the much maligned Kraft Single in 1949, and through this product, the conception that “All-American-Cheese-Is-Actually-Plastic” began to take shape. Some companies, such as Kraft, used these modernized food production methods to create a soulless American cuisine.

Our neighbors across the Atlantic, many of whom continued to practice old-world production methods of cheese, wine, and other foods and beverages, truly had us beat in the realm of “Food-People-Actually-Wanted-To-Eat.” For a select few, an insatiable curiosity for European cheeses coupled with a dissatisfaction for urban living led to a renaissance in American food. Enter the hippie goat ladies.

The counterculture revolution that began in the early 1960’s had implications that reached beyond that of the political and social. A revitalized desire to return to our rural roots manifested in the “Back to the Land” movement. One participant in this movement was a woman named Mary Kheen, who lived in a cabin in Northern California with her family during the 1960’s and 70’s. A self identified “serious” hippy, Kheen lived in a way that limited her environmental footprint, depending on her surrounding natural resources. A need for milk prompted her to reach out to her neighbors, who kept two unruly goats, Esmeralda and Hazel. Kheen asked her neighbors if she could milk the goats, and they simply replied, “Honey, if you can catch them you can have them.” Thankfully, Kheen caught the goats, and she soon had more milk than she knew what to do with.

Mary Kheen at Cypress Grove 

Mary Kheen at Cypress Grove 

Ever curious, she used her tiny cabin stovetop to try making cheese with the excess milk, beginning her explorations into cheesemaking. As Kheen honed her skills and slowly acquired more and more goats, she opened Cypress Grove Chèvre in 1983. Garnering attention from restaurants located in Humboldt county, she decided to take her cheese education a step further by traveling to France to study among cheesemakers with generations of experience. It was on this trip where the seed for Humboldt Fog, undoubtedly Cypress Grove’s most iconic cheese, was germinated.

In the rare instance where something good came out of sleeping on the job, Kheen literally dreamed up her creamery’s most iconic cheese. While napping on her flight home to California from France, she imagined a goat cheese that could pay homage to the French Morbier, a cheese with a line of vegetable ash running down the center. Thus, Humboldt Fog was born. The cloudy white interior and distinctive line of edible ash conjures up images of the hazy redwood skyline of Northern California, and its bright and tangy flavor reminds us of fresh air of the Northwestern coast. With Humboldt Fog, Kheen had an instant classic on her hands and a true American original. Since its conception, Humboldt Fog has won first place on three separate occasions at the annual American Cheese Society conference, and Cypress Grove has evolved into a giant in the artisanal cheese industry with more than 70 employees and 750 goats. Owning their own dairy gives them control of every step of the cheesemaking process, from milking to aging.

While Kheen dominates the cheese world on the West Coast, Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery is her East Coast counterpart. Her cheesemaking journey began when she studied abroad in Brittany as an undergraduate, working at a dairy farm on the side. Like Kheen, working with the animals developed into a passion. Upon her return to Vermont, she started worked at a dairy lab and milked goats. One day she was contacted by Bob Reese, who was desperately trying to find goat cheese from Vermont for a special dinner he was organizing that only included Vermont-produced products. The chef and diners loved her goat cheese so much, Hooper and Reese decided to started experimenting with goat cheese and butter production on a tiny scale starting in 1984.  As Hooper and Reese’s business grew, agriculturally minded people in Vermont began to pay attention, and her butter and fresh goat cheeses became hits. Their butter and fresh goat milk products also drew the affection of chefs from New York City, who were in need of French style butter that only Vermont Creamery produced. Over the next 15 years, Hooper and Reese began to experiment with aged goat cheeses, and products like Cremont and Bonne Bouche are praised just as highly as their fresh goat products. Just recently, dairy giant Land O’ Lakes purchased Vermont Creamery, which is a testament to the years of hard work Hooper and Reese have put into their craft.

Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery

Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery

Hooper and Reese are partially responsible for turning Vermont into a cheese mecca. Today, the creamery sources milk from twelve farms across Vermont and New Hampshire and employs over 100 people. In addition to her business accomplishments, she has served as a mentor to the cheesemakers at places such as Jasper Hill, another Vermont based creamery that has met with tremendous financial and critical success.

Through a combination of happy accidents, luck, and incalculable hours of hard work, these two Goat Ladies helped revitalize American interest in artisanal cheese. Hooper and Kheen, alongside their fellow pioneers, helped create a community of American artisans that continue to innovate and push boundaries, always questioning the cheesemaking status quo. As the American cheese scene continues to evolve and thrive, we continue to look back to the women who participated in the Back to the Land movement for inspiration. These trailblazers altered the gastronomic landscape of America and stoked the passions of farmers, cheese makers, and other artisans in every corner of the nation. A shop like ours certainly would not be here without them. It is for that reason we continue to cherish their timeless creations, doing our part to give them the credit they deserve.