BRATTLEBORO—During the month of September I celebrated my 20th anniversary as a cheesemonger.
By “celebrate,” I mean I ate some cheese, but I do that most months.
I also sat and thought a bit about what it means, and how I got here, and what has happened in these 20 years. But, I do that most months, too.
So, maybe writing this column is my celebration.
Some people know from an early age what they want to be when they grow up. I was not one of those kids. I am still not one of those kids, and I’m in my 40s. So, to engage in any profession for this long comes as a surprise to me.
Although my profession right now is journalist and I’m very happy with it, I consider myself a semi-retired cheesemonger. For a number of reasons, working behind the counter regularly basis is not a good option for me these days.
Still... cheesemonger for life.
* * *
How did I get here?
As is the story of many happy events, I got into cheese by accident.
In 1995, I was studying sociology at Marlboro College. I lived off-campus in a funny little apartment on Elliot Street, and I loved it dearly.
The summer after my sophomore year, I took a job in the produce department at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. As September approached, I found myself needing more hours than my manager could give me.
She said, “Go talk to Henry [Tewksbury] in the cheese department — I think he needs some help there.”
Here’s a close approximation of my job interview, which took place next to the banana display in the old co-op’s produce department.
Me: Hi, Henry. I need some hours and I heard you need someone to work in your department. I have to tell you, I don’t know anything about cheese, except I like to eat it.
Henry: Well, my dear, what better way to start.
That was it.
I was hired.
* * *
Because I was the newest hire, I worked the closing shifts. Henry, his son, Kip, and the other experienced staff needed to be there during the day to place and receive orders.
This meant I was alone at the cheese counter, and this (somewhat) innocent kid from suburban New Jersey who grew up eating individually wrapped orange slices of American and who thought blue cheese was something that existed only in bottles of pasty salad dressing was suddenly solely responsible for the care and feeding of 300 different cheeses.
My minimal training was pretty much limited to “here’s where we keep the knives,” and “here’s how you clean the slicer.”
The knowledge portion would come through experience.
The best training Henry gave me went something like this: It will take you a long time to learn these cheeses. Don’t worry about it. If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, offer them a taste of the cheese, and you taste it, too.
If they have further questions, write them down, take their phone number, and I’ll call them tomorrow.
And Henry always did.
Beyond that, it was up to me to get to know these cheeses. Other than trying to remember what I wanted to ask Henry or Kip during the few minutes our shifts overlapped, I had no resources.
There was no Internet behind the counter 20 years ago. I don’t remember us having any cheese reference books at all until about a year after I started, when Steven Jenkins’s groundbreaking Cheese Primer was published.
Nobody was really talking about cheese in 1995.
Pardon my “get offa my lawn, kid” moment, but anyone starting in cheese these days has a wealth of cheese reference books to consult, including books on the microbiology of cheesemaking and how to pair cheese with wine and beer.
Back then, I just winged it. And I ate a lot of cheese.
When I started, Henry Tewksbury’s cheese counter at the Brattleboro Food Co-op was pretty much in a class by itself in the United States. Outside of bigger cities, one was hard-pressed to find a shop or department selling more than a handful of industrial, lackluster cheeses, and all of them were either wrapped in plastic film, or came in Cryovac from the factory.
In Henry’s department, we had locally made cheeses (10 years before the words “localvore” and “locavore” were created), we had cheeses with weird rinds, we had cheeses with no rinds, and we had cheeses from countries most people never associated with cheese unless they lived there or visited.
I didn’t even have a name for my job. “I work behind a cheese counter,” I told friends and relatives, who then proceeded to look at me funny.
That didn’t bother me. I was already used to people looking at me funny. Plus, I found cheese absolutely enthralling.
* * *
I come from a family of big eaters, and from that I never rebelled. So, imagine my delight upon receiving instructions to eat everything.
I’m also a lifelong nerd — and again, pardon my Old Person schtick, but I was a nerd before it was cool — so giving me a job where part of the description is to learn all day, every day, is heavenly.
Ask my close friends. Ask anyone I’ve dated. Ask random strangers who stop me on the street with cheese questions. I can talk about cheese for hours.
Since September 1995, nearly every job I have had has involved cheese in some way — the non-cheese jobs never seemed to work out.
If you bought cheese at the Brattleboro, Putney, or Upper Valley Food Co-ops between 1995 and 2003, I might have sold it to you.
If you shopped for cheese at Zabar’s or Murray’s in New York from 2003 to about 2009, my handiwork was there, too, in the form of cheese descriptions I wrote for those little signs in the display case.
If you wandered in to the Brattleboro Cheese Shop a few years ago, that was me, too. There are other cheese-related places where we might have interacted, but I won’t bore you with my entire resume.
* * *
It wasn’t until about six years ago that “cheesemonger” became a job ill-attired hipsters aspired to, à la “mixologist.”
For a long time, slinging cheese meant you belonged to a very exclusive club — one that nobody outside of the industry really cared about.
Now there are emceed, beer-fueled cheesemonger competitions in the United States and photo spreads in food magazines. There’s even an entire magazine dedicated to cheese.
I probably sound jaded, but I’m not impressed. I liked it better when it was just a handful of us total nerds, and nobody was trying to be a rock star. I hate when the “cool kids” take over the Island of Misfit Toys.
The change has brought about a lot of posturing, or, as us old punk-rock kids say, “a bunch of poseurs.” Big ego-driven babies, phonies who know little but say too much, and rabid marketers seeking the next goofy gimmick.
* * *
Meanwhile, cheese keeps selling, and it shows no sign of slowing down. So maybe all that attention is a good thing.
Excellent cheesemakers are recognized for their contributions to the world, and not just in the industry press, but in mass-market newspapers, magazines, and television news programs.
Vermont is still the state with the highest number of artisan cheesemakers per capita. New cheesemakers emerge here every year, and many bring home prestigious awards from national and international competitions.
Places where one could recently only find industrial cheeses are starting to gain traction in the farmstead cheese world. The southern states east and west, Eastern Europe, Germany, and Mexico have recently begun putting out excellent handmade varieties.
Those of us who want good cheese have more places in which to buy it. Good cheese shops dot the map, and not just in big cities. Grocery stores that formerly carried only green cans of powdered “parmesan” now sell chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
And every day, cheesemongers put on their aprons and hand samples across the counter, trying to woo hungry shoppers away from a sad life of flaccid deli cheese, to a seemingly infinite variety of colors, textures, aromas, and flavors — all made from milk, salt, maybe some mold and bacteria. And time.
I’m proud to have been one of them.