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Food and Drink

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cheesemongers

It is not the greatest profession...except when it is

Wendy M. Levy works with cheese in the Brattleboro area and has recently decided upon her next cheese-related tattoo. Her editor points out that he has never seen her not absolutely love every customer in her store (Brattleboro Cheese, soon to reopen at 39 Main St. in Brattleboro), never seen her unwilling to provide unstinting customer service, and never known her not to encourage people to try free samples with abundance.

BRATTLEBORO—Trust me: I’ve been doing this cheesemonger thing for 17{1/2} years, more or less. It is a terrible profession, and you should just put it right out of your mind this instant. No sane person would ever want this job.

What day is it? I’m not making some elaborate April Fool’s Day joke. I’m serious. Find some other way to earn your living.

If you embark upon a “career” as a cheesemonger, you can expect all sorts of miseries.

First of all, the pay is dreadful. It’s retail. Food retail. Service industry. (And I’ve never worked in any cheese shop where the boss let you put out a tip jar so — really — go be a barista. You’ll get a tip jar.)

My first cheese job in Manhattan paid me barely a few dollars more than the minimum wage, and at that point I’d been working with cheese for eight years. And this place was considered one of the better cheese shops in New York City, where a high level of knowledge and customer service was expected.

Imagine if I’d worked in the crappy cheese shop! I’d still be walking here from Manhattan, pushing my belongings in a grocery cart.

* * *

If that’s not bad enough, some of your co-workers might be worse. Because “artisan” stuff, especially food, and working with one’s hands have achieved a certain level of hipster cred these last few years, you might encounter a number of trust-fund kids jockeying for space behind the cheese counter with you.

See, they don’t actually need to work — this is more like a hobby — so you get to hear heartwarming tales of their yearly trips to Italy and Spain, where, again that a-mehhh-zing cheese is apparently available.

(Some of us are still saving up for those trips, so we wouldn’t know. Not to sound envious, but our paychecks didn’t get us to the American Cheese Society conference in South Carolina last year, so it’s unlikely we’ll be hopping over to the Slow Food Cheese Festival in Italy this September.)

Not to worry, though. In a few months, they’ll quit to go become mixologists, especially once their mustaches get long enough. And then it’ll be back to you and the bitter old guy whose lunch break consists of Camel non-filters and the New York Post. At least he makes you laugh.

* * *

Sure, at that first Manhattan cheese job I got to learn more in a few months than I’d learned in the previous eight years, and sure I got to work with some of the best cheesemongers in the industry, many of whom went on to open their own shops or run their own counters.

Nice people, too, my fellow cheesemongers — and many of them actually needed their jobs! Smart, funny, odd in the most endearing ways, completely obsessed with cheese. Warm.

A cheese friend is one you’ll have for life, even if they’ve left the life for something that pays better. There’s a huge level of camaraderie among the cheesemongers in the world who are authentic and not just preening blowhards.

Case in point: I made friends online with a Bay Area cheesemonger because I had just started reading his book. We exchanged funny emails and war stories.

A few months later, I told him I was coming to his city and could he tell me when he was working so I could come see his counter and meet him.

His response was, “Well, why don’t you come stay at my house?”

I would have done exactly the same for him. You learn to instantly trust someone who plays with knives for a living.

* * *

Oh, and do you like celebrities? Here’s a partial list of my customers at that old Manhattan job:

• Bette Midler. (I was the only one behind the counter who would wait on her, which I found odd because she was darling. Very demanding and exacting, but who can begrudge someone who simply knows exactly what she wants?)

• Whoopi Goldberg. (She’s so down to earth you’d forget she’s — oh my goodness! — Whoopi Goldberg.)

• Harvey Keitel. (Did you know he’s three feet tall?)

• Matthew Broderick. (Ferris Bueller is reading my point-of-sale signs!)

• Martha Quinn. (Supposedly, I waited on her, but I didn’t recognize her.)

• Some super model whose face and name I didn’t know and can’t remember, but she supposedly was a Big Deal. Maybe Heidi Klum? Who cares, anyway? Just another picky customer.

* * *

You should also forget about ever being a cheesemonger, because it is a very physically demanding job.

Sure, when you’re 21 years old you can go drink a bunch and get high and come in to work the next morning and feel fine, even though you’re hung over and the washed-rind cheeses are overripe and your stomach is churning.

Oh, and that half-wheel of Comté needs to be broken down. All 50 pounds of it. How is your back feeling today?

Oh, you’re not 21 anymore. How’s that repetitive stress injury you got from cutting 40-pound blocks of cheddar into half-pound pieces for eight years?

Oh, and how’s that thumb healing up from when you pushed down on the front of the chef’s knife while you were cutting that Ossau-Iraty and your thumb slipped right onto the point of the blade and, oh wow, you were really bleeding? I’ve never seen so much blood from one digit.

Your feet hurt? Well, your shift isn’t over for another six hours and, because you work in retail, your breaks only happen when there are no customers. And there are always customers.

* * *

That’s another reason you should never become a cheesemonger: customers. It’s five minutes before closing, and Mr. Frugal comes in and wants a quarter-pound of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Oh, but you just sold the last piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano, so you get to break down an 80-pound wheel for this guy who wants a quarter pound.

You can’t pretend you are all out of Parmigiano-Reggiano because your stupid boss displays entire wheels of it all around the store to add ambience. And you made the mistake of washing down all of your knives and the board because you close in five minutes and you haven’t had a customer for over half an hour.

Or maybe you’d rather wait on Ms. Food-Phobic. She wants to know if this cheese that you’ve displayed on top of the counter all day will kill her instantly if she doesn’t get it home and into the refrigerator within the hour. And it’s December.

Oh, and she’s been in about 20 times today, or maybe it wasn’t her but her followers, because you’ve been asked this question so many times you start answering it in a sing-song voice, because singing it is the only way you can stop from screaming it.

Other customers who will darken your counter are:

• The Free Lunch-ers (“Do you have any samples?... No, I’m not interested in anything in particular, I just wanted to see if you had any free cheese for me to eat.”)

• The France-ers (“I just got back from France and I had the most a-mehhh-zing cheese. I’m going to tell you all about it, and if that’s not enough, I’m also going to tell you how much better the cheese is over there, and really loudly, too, so all of your other customers know how crappy your cheese selection is. Oh, and let me also tell you how much more cultured I am than you because I just got back from France and you’re here working.”)

• The Dilettante (“May I try samples of 20 different cheeses? I don’t know what I want, but maybe if I try all of these cheeses, selected completely at random, I will figure it out. I’m sure the 15 customers behind me won’t mind... Oh, well, after all that, I didn’t really want cheese anyway. But thanks.”)

• The Just Plain Psycho (“If you put a label with a UPC symbol on my cheese, the government will be able to track my eating habits and they will steal my precious bodily fluids.”)

* * *

Okay, to be fair, you will encounter some really lovely customers. Most of them, in fact, will be very nice, patient, agreeable people. Other than the characters above, the worst you can usually expect from most customers is someone who is quiet and isn’t sure what she wants, but is open to suggestion.

So many will have a delightful curiosity, an adventurous palate, a genuine appreciation for the intense labor that goes into cheesemaking, and an insatiable appetite for cheese. Some will have all of these characteristics.

The majority of them, in fact, will be so delighted to learn anything you have to tell them.

You have learned, haven’t you?

You do realize being a cheesemonger gives you the opportunity, in a way, to travel to distant lands — or just Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom — without having to sell your plasma for a plane ticket.

In fact, it’s not just an opportunity, it’s your responsibility.

You are not just a clerk, chopping industrial cheese into smaller pieces. To be a cheesemonger requires the ability to learn and retain a wealth of information not often shared by the folks in the other store departments.

Because you’re working with cheese — and because many of your customers will demand you know these things — you get a real Liberal Arts education from being a cheesemonger.

You will need to learn about:

• Geography. (Where is this cheese from?)

• Topography. (What does this terrain have to do with this cheese?)

• Climate. (Why do I care about the relative humidity in my cheese case?)

• Anthropology. (Why did certain cheeses develop in certain regions of the world?)

• History. (How did goats get to France from Arab lands?)

• Simple math. (This cheese’s label says it weighs 500 grams. Quick! What’s that weight in pounds?)

• Geometry. (You! Take this quarter wheel of Pecorino Toscano Stagionata and cut me a half-pound piece from it.)

• Animal science. (Why would rennet come from the stomach of an unweaned calf?)

• Microbiology. (Why does this cheese have this rind?)

• Politics. (Why would anyone lobby against raw milk cheese?)

• Food history. (How did the Milk Marketing Board almost completely ruin English farmstead cheesemaking?)

• Economics. (Why does this cheese cost so much?)

• Environmental concerns. (Why is it important for us to support farmstead cheesemaking?)

• Sociology. (Why will these people buy these cheeses and not those cheeses?)

• Marketing. (How can I get these people to buy those cheeses?)

• Art. (Look at my beautiful cheese display!)

* * *

Not convinced yet? Here’s another reason you do not ever want to be a cheesemonger: Like a doctor or lawyer, everyone at every party, family dinner, and wrestling match will want your advice on cheese, for free.

Once word gets out that you work with cheese, you will quickly be the most popular person in the room. A huge crowd of people will gather around you, much to the dismay of the birthday girl, cook, or pair of wrestlers.

They will all want to know your favorite cheese, and which cheese goes with that wine, and which cheeses they can eat if they are lactose intolerant, and when you are working because they want to come in and buy cheese from you and only you.

Before the evening is over, your throat will hurt from talking about cheese for four hours straight, and you’ll have a pocket full of phone numbers and email addresses of your 27 new friends, and you might get a promotion in a few weeks because your boss sees that you are selling much more cheese than anyone else.

But you never got to eat a morsel of cake and you missed the entire wrestling match because everyone wanted to talk to you about cheese.

Really. You don’t want any of this. It’s just not worth all the trouble, becoming a cheesemonger.

Next thing you know, you’ll be planning your next cheese-related tattoo. That’s just wrong.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #198 (Wednesday, April 10, 2013).

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