When the world’s glaciers receded after the last glacial period, they left in their wake the fertile farmland that would someday become known as Wisconsin. Millennia later, settlers from Switzerland and Germany congregated in the area, attracted by its agricultural similarities to their homelands. Most grew wheat at first, but within a few decades, insects, bad weather and uncertain markets marred their grainy dreams. They turned instead to dairy farming. So successful were their efforts that by the early 19th century these settlers had an abundance of milk, which women preserved by making cheese for their own families. Then, in 1841, housewife Anne Pickett purchased milk from her neighbor’s cows, made it into cheese and sold it: one small business for woman, one giant leap for the dairy state.
In Rebecca Gilman’s play Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, several of the play’s characters work in a Wisconsin factory, packing and shipping locally-made cheeses. By the 1970s, when the play takes place, Wisconsinites had firmly established their state as the cheese capital of the nation. These factory workers owe their jobs to the many women and men who had built an industry and an identity for Wisconsin.
Until the mid-19th century, cheesemaking had been considered “women’s work,” but when men saw Pickett’s success (and the potential profits of pressed milk curd), they began the shift from homemade to mass-produced cheese. In 1858, entrepreneur John J. Smith built a structure that pressed curds into cheese in much larger quantities than was previously possible in a home kitchen, and in 1864, a man named Chester Hazen opened a factory that used milk from over 300 cows. Skeptics referred to his endeavor as “Hazen’s folly” (a hard-hitting insult by 19th century standards), believing that mixing milk from several herds would negatively affect the final product. Hazen’s cheese, however, quashed all doubts, and before long railcars were speeding it to buyers across the country.
Before long, other upstarts joined the fray, often creating cheeses from their homelands. German immigrants contributed Muenster and Limburger, Italians made mozzarella and provolone, the French specialized in soft cheeses like Camembert and Brie, the Dutch produced Gouda, and the English brought the recipes for what would become one of America’s favorite cheeses: cheddar. The Swiss, it hardly needs pointing out, made a cheese best known for its negative space. One bold dairy explorer, Joseph F. Steinwand, developed a new type of cheese, Colby, and named it after the Wisconsin town where he invented it in his father’s factory. In 1886, cheese made its academic debut when the University of Wisconsin began offering courses in dairy farming and cheesemaking. The university solidified its reputation as a dairy hub when professor Stephen Babcock developed a test to determine the fat content of milk. This inexpensive test involves combining a small amount of milk with sulfuric acid, heating the mixture and putting it through a centrifuge. At the end of this process, only the fat remains, and it can then be measured. Babcock’s test allowed cheesemakers to refine their recipes and standardize their products.
By the early 1920s, the state’s cheese industry had ballooned to over 2,800 factories of various sizes. Wisconsin became the first state to grade its cheese for quality, ensuring its exports wouldn’t disappoint. By the 1940s, some of the smaller factories had shut their doors, but the remaining 1,500 factories produced about 515 million pounds of cheese each year, more than any other state.
Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 takes place in the fictional town of Reynolds, Wisconsin. The area depicted in the play strongly resembles Green County, which lies in southwest Wisconsin. Even by dairy state standards, Green County holds cheese in high esteem. Each year since 1914, its citizens have celebrated Cheese Days, which features parades, cow-milking competitions, pageants, yodeling and alphorn playing, and copious amounts of free cheese. “The concept of Cheese Days,” notes CheeseDays.com, the official website of the celebration, “originated from the notion that if some little town in Illinois could have a festival commemorating sauerkraut, then a celebration based on cheese would be an even better idea.” In Green County, and in the world of the play, cheese is not only a delectable food and an exportable product that provides a means to earn a living, it is also the basis for cultural traditions, socializing and finding connections to the residents’ European ancestry.
In recent times, Wisconsin’s dairy crown has been nearly overtaken by California as the two states vie to produce the greatest volume of cheese. Wisconsin maintains its lead in total pounds produced (nearly 2.9 billion in 2014 versus California’s 2.4 billion), and also boasts more specialty cheeses and cheeses overseen by master cheesemakers. It remains the only place in the United States where Limburger cheese is made. One hundred seventy-five years after a housewife first monetized her dairy creations, the country’s appetite for cheese remains strong.