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Food and Drink

Loving your work

I found a job that satisfied my two main character traits: geekery and hedonism. I was in the right place.

Wendy M. Levy is the owner of Brattleboro Cheese Shop & Café, which has recently reopened after a much-too-long hiatus.

BRATTLEBORO—In a just world, everyone would love their work. Nobody would slog through the daily grind for only a paycheck and the hope for an early retirement. Everyone would be free — economically and otherwise — to choose the work that suited them and made them happy, whether it be raising children or painting pictures or driving a taxi.

Even though my work is hard physically and emotionally — standing all day, repetitive stress injuries, dealing with the public (and now I own my own business, so add “anxiety” to the list) — it’s work I love and work I’ve chosen to remain in for nearly 18 years.

Do you love your work? I don’t mean every moment of it, but overall, do you feel your work suits your temperament and interests?

If so, do you remember the first time you realized you were exactly where you needed to be, in regards to employment? Where it felt like your work was an extension of you? Where you almost couldn’t believe you were being paid to do this work, because it was so much fun?

I hope you answered “yes” to at least one of these rhetorical questions — I did. For me, the first of these epiphany moments started shortly after I began working with cheese.

* * *

When I took my first cheese job, I knew of the existence of about six kinds of cheese, mostly the type you’d get sliced at the deli. I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs in the 1980s, well before the “artisan cheese” explosion of 2006 or so.

The most exotic cheese I knew was fresh mozzarella (as opposed to the “pizza”-type mozzarella, which is a totally different variety) because my childhood was spent among a great number of people of Italian descent. (Yes, I can identify nearly every locale in the opening credits of The Sopranos.) I thought blue cheese was something made specifically for salad dressing.

Imagine my surprise when I was hired to work at a counter with about 300 cheeses.

Oh, and because I was the new gal, mine were evening shifts where I had to work by myself. So, I was responsible for selling 294 cheeses about which I knew not a damn thing.

How could this lead to thoughts of loving one’s work?

Well, I was suddenly faced with the realization that there were 294 cheeses I didn’t know. And not only was it my job to sell any of them — scary! — but it was my responsibility to learn about those 294 cheeses. This crash course involved eating all 294 cheeses.

If I’m not learning, I’m bored, and if I’m bored, I want to go home. And I love eating things and smelling things!

So finally, I found a job that satisfied my two main character traits: geekery and hedonism. I was in the right place.

It was so fascinating, learning that cheese could be made from the milk of animals other than cows. That there were different breeds of cow! That pretty much every cheese in the world is made from the following ingredients: milk, salt.

There was so much to learn, I quickly found out. And almost 18 years later, I’m still learning.

* * *

One night, a few months into my new career, two smiling, well-dressed gentlemen came to the cheese counter. I knew they weren’t locals even before they spoke up and asked for my boss, their British accents confirming my suspicion.

“Sorry,” I said, “Henry’s not here. Did you have an appointment? Is there something I can help you with?”

“Well, yes, my name is Randolph Hodgson,” one said, introducing his associate. “We’re here from Neal’s Yard Dairy, in London. We’re sorry we’ve missed Henry, but might we show you some things about some of the cheeses you’re selling? Would you be interested in that?”

At the time, “Randolph Hodgson” and “Neal’s Yard Dairy” meant nothing to me but, in retrospect, I wish I’d known better. That was my brush with cheese fame.

Mr. Hodgson is practically cheese royalty, having almost singlehandedly brought artisan cheesemaking back from a near-certain grave in the British Isles. Without Mr. Hodgson and Neal’s Yard Dairy, we would likely not have Montgomery’s Cheddar or Colston Bassett Stilton in the USA.

When he and his friend came to visit me, however, I just saw them as very nice men who patiently showed me pictures of cows, farmers, and the cheesemaking process while I scooped grated Parmesan into little plastic bags.

Even in my ignorance, though, I had an eye-awakening moment, one I’m a little embarrassed about today: This was the first time I realized cheese came from a farm and was made by people (very cute people with sinewy arms, white aprons, and big white rubber boots). And happy, grazing animals were part of this equation, too.

Randolph Hodgson and his friend explained this all to me while I performed my busy work. Had I known the status of the person giving me this good lesson, I would have been far too starstruck to absorb anything. It would be like having Shakespeare come teach your high-school literature class.

But I digress. It’s not the brush with fame that gave me my epiphany moment; it was learning about the connections among farms, cheese, and everything in between.

I realized cheese was important, and not just as something that enabled my paycheck. Cheese was helping keep farmland intact. Dairy farmers don’t get much money for their milk in liquid form. But invest in some equipment and turn it into cheese — an example of what is known as a “value-added product” — and a little more money can be made. And a farm can remain a farm.

* * *

Speaking of Montgomery’s Cheddar, my next cheese-related, eye-opening experience came when I first tried that cheese. After a steady diet of acidic, plastic-, or wax-encased cheddars, it’s a revelation to try an authentic English clothbound cheddar.

When I got my chance, I was incredibly surprised.

“This is really cheddar?” I wondered. I thought I didn’t like cheddar. Cheddar is bitter. Cheddar is acrid. I have a sensitive palate.

But clothbound cheddar is smooth, is fruity, can taste like brown butter or nuts or mushrooms and, when you nibble near the rind, it tastes earthy, reminiscent of the dirt-floor cellar of your grandma’s 1800s-era farmhouse. Yes, this cheese tastes different depending on whether you eat closer to its core or up against the rind. Cheese is different when it’s made by hand! Cheese tastes different when it’s aged in different materials! I like cheddar!

My next big cheese revelation came in about 2007, when I was doing freelance work at Zabar’s, the magnificent “old New York” food emporium in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

My job was to come to the cheese department every six weeks or so and try all of the cheeses that had arrived since I’d last visited. I would sample them, write tasting notes, research the cheeses, enter them into the database I’d created, and create a sign for the cheese case. This sign had information for the consumer as well as the cheesemonger.

I would do other things, too, for the cheese department, but these tasks comprised most of my work there. I remember laughing with Olga Dominguez, the wonderful woman who built the cheese department and who has run it for many decades, as we stuffed our faces with the variety of cheeses sent by hopeful cheesemakers and salespeople.

“Oh what horrible jobs we have!” we said. “We are getting paid to eat cheese all day!”

Of course, there was much more to both of our jobs — many years of learning, putting in hard hours standing behind a counter, dealing with all manner of humanity and the madness of Thanksgiving Eve — but at that moment I realized I had worked my way to a fine position: eating and writing about cheese in what I consider to be the best, most influential food store in world.

Sure, there were crappy cheeses I had to sample. But even if it were a volunteer job I’d have been happy. That I got paid to do this was magnificent, even when I had to eat a dreadful cheese.

My epiphany was that I was fortunate, and that my work had a trajectory.

* * *

A few years later my aha! moment came when I realized I wasn’t alone.

Sure I’d known a few other cheese-obsessed folks in my travels from cheese counter to cheese counter, but it wasn’t until I attended the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) that I realized there was an entire community — a cult, even — devoted to being devoted to cheese.

CMI is a competition for cheesemongers, similar to Iron Chef, held at Larkin Cold Storage, a warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, where nearly every wheel of imported cheese passes through on its way from Europe to you.

Larkin is one of those places immensely integral to the cheese industry that scant few consumers even know exists. Seasoned cheesemongers, especially those who have spent time buying cheese, know of its importance.

I attended the 2011 event. Picture a huge warehouse packed full of cheesemongers, cheesemakers, shop owners, salespeople, and a few non-professional enthusiasts, grazing on an enormous spread of the finest imported cheeses in the world and with booths featuring premier cheesemakers and affineurs (those who age cheese).

Then there’s the stage, upon which CMI’s founder and the night’s emcee, Adam Jay Moskowitz, introduces the cheesemongers during the first part of the competition.

Each cheesemonger told the audience a little about themselves and where they work, then named their favorite cheese and told us why.

That’s the part that got me — when the cheesemongers shared their favorite cheese. The first cheesemonger named her favorite cheese: Montgomery’s Cheddar. The entire audience, about 600 people, roared and cheered wildly for Montgomery’s Cheddar. They roared and cheered wildly for James Montgomery, the maker of said cheese.

So it’s not just me.

The ’mongers compete in subsequent rounds (identify the animal, provenance, milk type, age, and name of an assortment of mystery cheeses; cut and wrap these cheeses into quarter-pound pieces; create a cheese plate). As I watched them, and as I listened to the audience cheer on their favorite cheesemongers, I realized I was part of something bigger than myself, and those who call themselves “cheesemonger” have an immense sense of pride in what they do.

* * *

A few months later, that community spirit played out for me on a more personal level. I was planning to visit Portland, Ore. for a week, and I decided I wanted to go see the Cheese Bar, the shop owned by Steve Jones, who won the 2011 CMI.

(I’d just come from San Francisco, where I stayed with my cheese-friend Gordon, who invited me to stay with him even though we’d never met, because we’re “cheese family.”)

I went into Steve’s shop and introduced myself to him as a fellow cheesemonger, and I congratulated him on his CMI win. I didn’t expect much. The guy was running a shop. He was busy.

But he took time out of his workday to talk with me about local cheeses he was excited about, and he came and sat with my friends and me while we ate our food. Come to think of it, I’d do the same were he to visit my shop, or if any other visiting cheesemonger stopped by.

There aren’t many of us, compared with, say, accountants. But we’re like a trade union without an official cheesemongers-only organization, and that revelation makes me happy to be part of the cheese movement.

It’s not just me who scours used bookstores for cheese tomes, searching for the elusive out-of-print books by author and cheese crusader Patrick Rance. I’m not the only one who plans vacations around cheese shops. There are others with cheese-related tattoos. Someone else out there has a “Montgomery’s Cheddar” tag stuck to the refrigerator.

We might be weirdos and we are definitely obsessed, but we are not alone.

My job might kill me. My chiropractor loves me. I just found out I have a heel spur that’s triggered Achilles tendonitis from standing for almost 18 years. Owning my own shop and financing it on a frayed shoestring of a budget might give me the final panic attack that induces a stroke or worse. And I’m not getting any younger or richer.

But cheese is my life, and it’s teaching me so much about pretty much everything I care to know. Anything it’s not teaching me just doesn’t seem so important these days.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #202 (Wednesday, May 8, 2013).

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