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Unplated: An Interview with Alexandra Jones
Cheese, climate change, and time travel
This conversation is part of the Unplated series, a collection of interviews with folks whose work intersects with food, but who work outside restaurant + hospitality spheres. My hope is that these conversations not only spark your curiosity, but help you think about how what you eat is connected to the world well beyond your plate.
Alexandra Jones is someone who isn’t afraid of nuance. When we specialize in a given subject (like cheese), it can be easy to romanticize it: To focus just on pairings and flavor and the beauty of artisan production practices, while ignoring our subject in context. Jones doesn’t back away from contexts, like climate change, that impact and are impacted by dairy. Instead, she asks, how do these two interact? And what is within our power to shift, and how?
Jones was recently awarded an exciting grant (see below!) and I took this opportunity to interview her about her work not only in the context of our larger world, but within her life as well.
JS: First of all, can you tell me a bit about your work? How did you come to be interested in cheese?
AJ: I'm a writer and author with a hands-on background in regional food systems. That's a roundabout way of saying I didn't go to grad school or anything—I started working in local food as a career, and those experiences inform my outlook and the work I do now.
Before that, I'd had plenty of casual counter-service jobs—Dunkin' Donuts when I was 15, bagel slinger and cater waiter in college, then barista for a few years. My first job when I moved to Philadelphia was at the Trader Joe's in Center City, and eventually I had the chance to manage the cheese section, merchandising the case and doing staff trainings and demos for customers. I managed to get a job at a nonprofit urban farm that ran an aggregated CSA and farmstand.
After my boss left after three months, I found myself buying thousands of pounds of produce, meat, cheese, pantry goods each week—all sourced from farmers and producers within 150 miles of Philly. This was in 2010, at the height of the local food frenzy, and I had incredibly romantic (and naive) notions about what it meant to work with farmers, and about the power of individual consumer choices to effect systemic change.
But that job is where I first connected with artisan cheesemakers. The previous buyers had been vegan, and they brought in cheese based on price and shelf life. I got my first taste of cheeses made by hand, with raw milk, from cows raised on pasture, and the difference was huge. I moved on to another nonprofit where I continued to work as a buyer, then began to focus more on consulting with chefs, hotels, and other wholesale stakeholders to connect them with local producers while managing the region's only all-local cheese case.
By 2016, farm-to-table was starting to feel pretty overplayed, and the need for that kind of facilitation had begun to wane. When I got laid off after a loss of funding, I immediately pivoted to writing about the farmers, chefs, and artisans I'd been working with. I also kept selling cheese for maker friends at farmers' markets and launched a regional cheese subscription with two of them, and taught cheese pairing and home cheesemaking classes.
I still loved working with food and food producers, but I was really burned out on the idea that people should eat a certain way. Because I had access to all things local, organic, and sustainable (subsidized by an employee discount), I held myself to a really high standard in terms of what I bought and ate.
It was way too strict, and for a long time, I felt like I didn't have anything to say because I didn't feel like I could keep telling people to eat or shop a certain way, because it felt clear to me then that all that work had been for nothing.
I spent the next few years struggling creatively, career-wise, and financially, trying to make it as a freelancer in food journalism. When I had the opportunity to write a book about cheese, then help create a really exciting educational resource for early-career cheesemongers, I figured I had found my niche. Just calling myself a cheese writer feels limiting—I'm working on doing more with agriculture in general and the climate impact and implications of and for dairying and cheesemaking.
JS: Two of our overlapping interests are in traditional foodways and production methods, as well as the land and animals.
There are so many rabbit holes we could go down about both when it comes to cheese, but what are a few big ways each connects to cheesemaking?
AJ: Cheese intersects with so many aspects of our world. I know you can say that about lots of different foods, or foodways in general, but it's especially true about cheese. Looking at the history of cheese gives you a pretty good reflection of human history, and not just in the Western European cultures that many of us commonly associate with cheesemaking.
It's a food that's traveled and evolved with us for 10,000 years, and taken on new identities everywhere dairying took hold. That strongly place-based identity piece ties into land, animals, and food traditions. There are so many parts of the world where the soil is too rocky to grow anything but grass, but cows can transform it into milk that can become food for humans. Or places too arid to grow crops that support vegetation goats love to eat. Those plants make their mark on the flavor of aged cheeses, and the animals who live there adapt to those conditions, too—often with the intervention of humans breeding for certain traits.
Until the advent of modern refrigeration, too, general climactic conditions like temperature and humidity have dictated what kind of cheese can be made in a given place. It's why we see fresh, acid-coagulated cheeses made in hot, dry regions like North Africa, the Levant, Western Asia, often kept in brine or packed in salt to preserve them without spoiling.
The cooler, wetter weather in the Alps, as well as the terrain, shaped the kind of cheesemaking done there. Farmers bring their herds up to wildflower-rich mountain pastures in summer so the lowland pastures can be used for haying, which will keep the animals fed over winter. Making cheese on the way up a mountain means traveling light, so those recipes are low in salt, and herders pooled their animals' milk into big batches to make big, rugged wheels that could age for many months in that climate.
I think this is part of why cheese feels so romantic for so many people—because it lets them travel through time and space via taste. And of course, the way cheesemaking and dairying has changed in many places over the last century or so tells us so much about how the world has changed—and makes the cheese and producers and practices in places where it hasn't changed anywhere near as much all the more fascinating.
“I think this is part of why cheese feels so romantic for so many people—because it lets them travel through time and space via taste.”-Alexandra Jones
JS: Speaking of traditional foodways and work made by hand, I wonder if we can move now to your larger creative practice.
What other creative activities do you like to engage in (painting? Dancing? Something else?) How do they shape your writing practice?
AJ: I'll be real, 95% of the writing I do these days is "work," whether for editorial publications or for other clients. My life has been a bit of a work in progress for the past few years—after the initial jolt of the pandemic, my partner and I decided to leave the apartment we were getting priced out of and travel around the country in our Outback for about a year and a half.
I was working the whole time, and we had family to stay with in some places, but it was a refreshing change to not really know what the future held for a while and make up our route as we went along. Then we started craving more security and ended up back in Philly at the start of 2023. I also just bought a house, and so many routines—workouts, morning pages, meditation—fell by the wayside.
Now that we're mostly unpacked and settling in, I plan to spend more of my energy on sewing, knitting, spinning, and weaving (a new one for me). Those practices feel like more of an escape than writing, which for someone with a sort of performance anxiety around the task can feel like absolute torture.
But they keep my hands busy, and you usually end up with something nice (or at least useful) at the end, which is such a refreshing alternative to the nagging feeling that a writing project is never truly finished.
JS: In addition to writing and your expertise in cheese, what other experiences and interests inform how you approach your work?
Have you noticed any surprising overlaps in how your work in one space benefits another? (A favorite example from my own life is how being a bus driver made me a better librarian).
AJ: I think that working several shitty jobs in foodservice in my 20s, and then getting overworked and underpaid in the nonprofit industrial complex and having to rebuild a career on my own in an industry in which I didn't have formal training, have been extremely valuable in helping me see the systems that shape our lives for what they are and reorienting my work based on that.
I didn't necessarily realize it at the time—I grew up middle-class and pretty sheltered—but I've spent much of the last several years deprogramming my thinking around work, food, farming, politics, media.
JS: You've got a new project in the works (which you've received a grant for, congratulations!) that explores the impact of climate change on cheese producers and dairy farmers.
Can you tell me a bit about the project and what you hope to accomplish?
AJ: The goals of my Daphne Zepos Research Award project are threefold:
to learn how climate change is affecting cheese producers and dairy farmers
to understand how dairy farming and cheese production contribute to carbon emissions and other environmental challenges
to share actionable steps producers large and small are taking to mitigate their climate impact and make their operations more resilient to climate hazards.
I had so many ideas I wanted to explore when I applied, but I was so busy with client work that I basically had to figure that out and write my vision for the project in a single day. I started out, as I usually do with newsletters and "creative" writing projects, by scribbling a bunch of incoherent notes out by hand. The pathway that opened up was to write about cheese and climate change.
The DZTE is a nonprofit dedicated to cheese education, named for a very cool cheese professional who I'm sorry I'll never get to know—so many industry folks I've reached out to or met around the project have spoken so highly of her. But it is dedicated to industry education, and I was worried my project might not fly for political reasons. So I framed it truthfully—I was experiencing dissonance between my work in cheese and the climate grief I was feeling all the time. And I made sure to include useful information and actionable steps for those in the industry as part of my approach.
So many of the climate-related disasters we've seen in the past year have impacted this aspect of our food system, in addition to loss of life and health impacts and environmental damage: cows stranded in California blizzards, hay supplies destroyed by extended wet weather in New England, roads washed out and entire communities under water in Vermont.
As climate change impacts pastures and food supplies like hay, milk chemistry is impacted, which can have far-reaching implications on cheese quality and make the cheesemaking process less consistent. That doesn't even get into the impacts on markets, on workers, on the people cheese producers are relying on to buy their products.
JS: Related to this, can you talk a bit about how eco-grief ties into our relationship with food, either as consumers or producers, and how your work might help people (yourself included!) navigate their eco-grief, or even offer a bit of hope, in the context of cheese?
AJ: I think for me, I have a tendency to give up and say "fuck it" and eat string cheese and commodity meat because they're easy and consuming differently can feel hopeless. Grief is right there in the name—and we know that people dealing with grief, anxiety, depression, etc are not always in the kind of emotional, mental, or physical place where they can adhere to a strict set of rules around consumption.
As I mentioned, I'm much less precious (and more cost-conscious) about food at this point. I love cooking from my CSA box and supporting farmer friends and local makers, but otherwise, I'm shopping at Lidl. Routine eating right now feels like a chore more than it has at other times in my life, though I still get grounding and flow from the experience of cooking and putting perishables to use and eating delicious things dictated by season.
I also get avoidant about things. I still spend too much time on social media, and I have literally hundreds of tabs open with upsetting, depressing, scary stories related to climate and agriculture and cheese and dairy. I'm scared to read them—I want to obsessively catalogue what's going on both for my own hypervigilance and for research purposes, but I don't face that information head on. It can feel like too much to bear. My DZRA project, and my newsletter (which took a little summer hiatus) are my way to actually live up to my own expectations for myself and face this information, digest these issues, and have something that might feel constructive, or educational, or maybe slightly hopeful be the result.
Talking to experts has been a mix of hopeful and infuriating, too—because we know exactly what we need to do to hopefully ward off planetary catastrophe and to minimize harm to people, land, and animals with the climate crises we're seeing every day, and ensure we have enough to eat in this uncertain future. But people in power refuse to treat this situation like the emergency it is. Maybe we'll just have to make them!
JS: And finally, if you had to pick one favorite book you've read this year, what would it be?
I haven't been reading much—see aforementioned phone addiction and many weeks when every book I own has been stuffed in a box—but I recently read Alicia Kennedy's much-anticipated No Meat Required.
I've followed her work for several years, and it was the frank, no-nonsense tone in her newsletter that helped me feel like striving for a more ideal way of eating, and holding people accountable to making better choices when possible, was still worth doing (even when I fail to be 100% perfect myself). The book is a really fascinating history of veganism and vegetarianism, with looks into farm communes and punk kitchens and eco-feminist restaurants that really brought her culinary philosophy to life.
I know you only asked for one book, but I'll note that what I read immediately before that was Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs by the comedian and podcaster Jamie Loftus. It's a pandemic-era travelogue that takes you through hot dog history and all over the US, told with a class and labor framework while still being very funny and very touching.
And the book after Kennedy's, which I'm reading now, is Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood by Anne Mendelson—much less funny, and with a blind spot I'm waiting to see if or how she'll address by the end. A fun triptych that just might be the subject of a future Milkfed.
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