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American Goat Cheese: From Hippie Chick To Hip And Chic

I'll never forget the taste of a particular glass of milk offered to me at my friend's house when we were in the fourth grade: sour grass. After I tried it, my friend's hippie mom proudly informed me it was goat's milk. Gross, I thought.

I had a pretty typical East Coast 1980s childhood diet of sugary cereals and processed dinners, and so my palate was completely unprepared for the funky flavor of goat.

But now, some 30 years later, I've often pulled goat cheese out of the fridge to bolster a quick dinner or to serve unexpected visitors.

I'm not alone in going from zero to 60 on goat, but how did it happen?

One of the grand dames of goat cheese, Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove Chevre in California, started her business in 1983, at a time when she says nobody wanted to eat goat cheese.

At the Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., this summer, the lines for her counter were sometimes five people deep.

Back in the 1980s, she says, people would tell her they didn't like goat cheese. But she persevered. "Well, try this one," she recalls saying. Eventually, it worked.

That's the rights strategy, says Marci Pelchat, who studies taste and flavor at the Monell Center. One of the keys to getting people to try new foods is mere exposure — especially in a social setting.

"If someone serves it at a party, or you go to an expensive restaurant, that helps cognitively to make you want to try it again," Pelchat says. Basically, social pressure helps.

"It took us 10 years to get people not to go, 'Yuck,'" Keehn says, recalling the early food shows where she desperately tried to give away samples.

Now, goat cheese is nothing new to the rest of the world. In fact, goats were among the first domesticated animals, valued for their size, their smarts, their lean meat and their milk. In Homer's epic poem, "The Odyssey," the gigantic one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, puts goat milk curds into molds made of reeds — tah dah, cheese.

Fresh goat cheese has been prized in France for centuries, and now there's dozens of varieties of aged goat cheese. But Americans never quite took to the flavor until the last decade or so.

Some of us may never like it, says Pelchat. It depends on our childhood experiences, whether our parents tried new foods or encouraged us to do it.

"Exposure does increase liking, [but] it depends on where you started out," she says. If you're open to new flavors, you'll have more food in your repertoire.

Keehn says she was always open to new things. She had a young family and not a lot of money in the early 1970s, and she noticed a neighbor had a few goats around her barn to control weeds. She was thinking about survival, and reading about how milk and meat were used in other cultures.

So with her neighbor's permission, she captured two goats and started domesticating them.

Soon, her biology degree kicked in, and she started building a complex breeding program. She began showing the animals at fairs. And then she had more milk than her family could drink, so she started making cheese.

"You can just heat up milk, add a little vinegar and it will coagulate, so that was my first cheese. We ate a lot of that, and it's not that great," Keehn admits. But she kept trying. She ordered French manuals on how to make goat cheese, and used yogurt as a starter because the special cheese-making enzymes available to today's cheese entrepreneurs weren't around back then. She sold it to friends and neighbors.

Now her Humbolt Fog, a pure white cheese with a gray-blue vein running through it, is among the most recognizable fresh goat cheeses around.

Goat cheese is the fastest growing market for domestic goat milk, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although it's still quite small compared to cow's milk cheese. Now books about what to do with goats are everywhere, but there was nothing American available when Keehn started out.

To stay current, Keehn recently started making goat cheese wedding cakes — three goat cheese wheels stacked on top of each other, shaped like a three-tiered wedding cake.

"It's exciting to be invited to peoples' weddings, even if it's just for the cheese," she says.

And she welcomes the competition — of which there was plenty at the Fancy Food Show.

One company called Happy Goat was marketing six flavors of goat cheese caramels, including one featuring a nip of Scotch liquor. Now that's a flavor Americans will probably take to quickly.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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