Cows and goats are not native to North America, and were brought by Europeans. The Europeans also introduced other non-native species, such as pigs, starlings and smallpox. Native American tribes are not known to have any bison-milking traditions, but in Asia, buffalo milk is used to produce curdy chhena cheese. So, you know, it’s technically possible.
2. The first local cheese was made in Vancouver.
Fort Vancouver, anyway. And it was made by the English (or, as they were called then, Canucks of the Future). John McLoughlin of the British Hudson’s Bay Company brought in livestock, throughout the 1830s, and started selling cheese to Russian fur traders in Alaska by 1839. The cheese “sounds kind of iffy from the descriptions, but it was edible,” writer Tami Parr tells WW. “It probably resembled cheddar.”
3. Coos Bay could have been Tillamook.
Except Tillamook learned the lessons of Ray Kroc before Ray Kroc: Standardization and branding breed trust in the American heart. At the turn of the 20th century, Coos Bay and Tillamook both had a shot at becoming major cheese powers—Big Cheeses, if you will. But Tillamook farmers formed a collective called the Tillamook County Creamery Association and standardized the cheese’s name and texture, so people knew what you were talking about when you said “Tillamook cheese.”
4. Tuberculosis helped make goat cheese popular in the early 20th century.
Starting around World War I, there were tuberculosis panics surrounding cows, and a notion that goats might be healthier. (Never mind that goats can also get TB.) The Morning Oregonian newspaper wrote an editorial with the stirring title “Why Not Goat’s Milk?,” arguing that goat’s milk was healthier for babies than cow’s milk. Goat’s milk was also claimed to cure eczema and epilepsy.
5. Portland was the first test market for canned cheese.
It sounds great, but it didn’t catch on, despite sterling 1930s innovations like off-gassing valves that allowed cheese to age in the can without causing the can to explode. The future, it turned out, was in plastics. Specifically, it was pliofilm—invented in the 1940s—that allowed for a strange, new phenomenon: rindless cheese.
6. There was a Tillamook cheese civil war in the ’60s.
In 1949, Tillamook’s four largest cheesemakers built a massive factory that began to dominate the TCCA’s voting. In the ’60s, the factory split from the collective and accused it of selling cheese made in Minnesota; each sued the other for millions. But they were united in 1968 by the waste that cheese factories were dumping in Tillamook Bay. Cleaning it up was expensive, so they banded back together. It’s a heartwarming story, but apparently the scars remain. “There are families who won’t talk to each other even today,” says Parr.
7. When Elaine Tanzer started Elephants Delicatessen in 1979, she had to go to New York City for craft cheese.
There wasn’t much craft cheese until recently. “It wasn’t getting made,” says Parr, “and there wasn’t distribution. But also, consumers wouldn’t have bought it.” Now, of course, there’s the opposite situation. “There are so many cheesemakers out there now,” says Parr. “If somebody wants to bring their cheese to the Portland Farmers Market, they can’t. There’s a waiting list. Success brings its own challenges.”
GO: Tami Parr will sign copies of Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History at Pastaworks on Hawthorne, 3735 SE Hawthorne Blvd., on Saturday, Feb. 15. 2-4 pm. Free.