There’s something about cheese. The funk, the stink, the sweet. Cheese possesses magic powers. Cheese makes people happy. Cheesy days are better than cheese-less days. Cheese is different than, say, peanut butter. It’s living and breathing. It coagulates, ferments, molds, breathes, ages, oozes… it sings.
There’s something about cheese people, we who make lives working with cheese. We are an awesome and peculiar breed. We are passionate, nerdy, at times earnest and at others, unabashedly silly. Cheese means a lot to us and yet often, we do not take ourselves so seriously.
I was 17 when I embarked on my first restaurant job in New York, hostessing for the fabulous, stodgy Picholine, right by Lincoln Center, where dim lighting falls from grand, low-slung chandeliers. I checked a lot of plush furs, and escorted aging moguls to Table 47.
I spent as much time with Max McCalman and his famous cheese cart as was humanly possible. I helped him set up the “Swiss Army” of alpine cheeses before service: the meaty, creamy Sharfe Maxx, the herby Appenzeller, the Hoch Ybrig. I was in New York in winter, but the Hoch Ybrig transported me to blindingly green summer pastures of Canton Schwyz, Switzerland. Cue The Sound of Music. During slow moments, we’d hunch over in the back, meditating on slivers of Azeitão, the hurt-your-tongue sour melting into fatty, sheepy softness.
It was unheard of for a fromager job at Picholine to go to a woman, or so was my suspicion when they passed me over for my tall, tall Spanish colleague—the only host.
But Max got me a summer job at the Artisanal Cheese Center, where I sprayed wheels of Eppoises with burgundy and massaged their ruddy, orange bellies. I learned how to tell if the bloomy-rinded cheeses were perfectly ripe using my nostrils alone, although I ever-so-gently prodded their snow-white skin to make sure. I washed my hands obsessively, yet people edged away from me on my subway ride home. The cheese-stink lived in my pores, perhaps even my bones.
I felt at home with the wrinkly-skinned tommes, the mite-infested Mimolette, and with my coworkers, fellow exalters of all things cheese. They were introverts and loud-mouthed people people; they came from Oakland and Mexico and New Jersey; they had loved cheese forever or they had left careers as lawyers and accountants to follow the siren call of the fromage.
I went on to help Brian Keyser open Casellula Cheese & Wine Café. “What makes cheese people unique?” I asked Brian the other day. We take it for granted, that we cheese people have something that binds us, perhaps beyond the curd.
“We care about real,” Brian said. We yearn for authenticity, whatever that means and does not mean. “Money is not our driving motivation. We feel a connection to our ancestors and our shared history.” We people of the cheese are seekers. We are romantics.
We are also a diverse bunch. Some of us shine in spotlights at fancy restaurants, others work as close to the goats and the grass as they can get. “Some of us are academics and intellectuals, some of us are more gut-driven. Some of us like attention, some of us hate it,” Brian says.
Steven Jenkins (pictured above), one of the original New York cheese people and my boss at Fairway Market, where I work now, says on cheese people, “I became one because I needed a job. I stuck to it because no one else was doing it. Then, when I realized how much I loved it, it was because I knew cheese was the most miraculous and romantic substance in the entire realm of gastronomy, maybe the most remarkable substance ever created by humans. As amazing as a vaccine. As eyeglasses. As the alphabet.”
Can you see why I wanted to work with Steve?
Cheese is so rich with history, so multidimensional, so sexy and sensual, so down and dirty, so fun and deeply satisfying to eat. I feel lucky that I get to work with cheese, that I am paid to spread the curd. I’ve grappled with feeling like my food life is frivolous, but when I introduce someone to the ashy, funky, smoothness of raw milk Morbier for their first time, or hay-y, musky Tomme Crayeuse, or butterscotch-y Ewephoria sheep’s milk gouda, my reservations dissolve. This person’s day will now be better in a very tangible way. And when something, anything, is getting me down, a new wheel of something pungent and luscious brings me right back up.
Anne Saxelby, owner of Saxelby Cheesemongers at Essex Street Market and host of the cheese-centric radio show ‘Cutting the Curd’ loves that “being involved in the process of making or selling cheese means that you are directly responsible for bringing people gustatory joy! Nobody smiles when they go to their accountant’s office (or at least I don’t) but pretty much everyone smiles when they head to the cheese counter. All told, there must be a lot of good karmic juju circulating from the animal to the farmer to the monger to the customer, and all the way back around.”
It’s a very physical, salt-of-the-earth substance. I love making mozzarella, pulling and pulling the curds into formation, tasting the fruits of my labor. The still-warm salty, lactic strands of just-made mozzarella are closer to milk than to cheese. I know it says something good about humanity, that we did this, made this…and that we’re still making this stuff, and sharing it, and basking in its wild goodness.
Featured image courtesy of Hannah Howard