Holiday work and the Brie/Camembert conundrum


Working on holidays is always weird. Before we started closing for Pride (what… a decade ago?), we had a policy that anyone who wanted to take the holiday could, and that departments were responsible to fill the shifts. But it didn’t matter much. The store was tumbleweed city because of both revelers and traffic jams filling the streets.

Pink Saturday is bad enough. Once the Dyke March starts there are only a few shoppers. In fact, the vibe in the store is a lonely one. Not only is it like our store feels like its been transported into a world without GLBTQ folks – both as workers and shoppers – but there’s also a feeling in the air. It’s like the one you get when there’s a really fun party going on next door, but your neighbors didn’t invite you.

The Fourth of July is a little different. First off, it’s not nearly as big a holiday in SF as Pride. And there are definitely shoppers proudly not celebrating the 4th of July as an act of political principle. A trip to the worker-owned grocery store is a perfect way to celebrate not celebrating!

It was slow this year, after a mid day rush, but many of the folks shopping were interestingly theoretical. With one customer I got into a nice long discussion about antibiotic use on dairy cows and how little interesting organic cheese is available. With another – a shopper since before I was a worker — we discussed the differences between the old store and the “new” one.”* With a third I discussed whether the world would end due to Incan Calendar Fail or merely as Nostradamus prophesized. The last one I didn’t actually discuss, mind you. I just stupidly asked a clarifying question about a button he was wearing and then had to wait out the word storm. It was like a summer shower except that I felt dirtier after it was over.

There was still a little holiday aggro though. One customer came up asking for a mini wheel of goat Brie they had bought before. We generally have three soft-ripened, small goat wheels at any given time: The Redwood Hill Camellia, the Sevre Et Belle Chevre du Poitou and the Woolwich Triple Cream Goat Brie. However, as long time readers here probably know, when customers ask for “Brie”, trouble can arise.

All over the internet people ask “What’s the difference between Brie and Camembert?” The problem is that there are different answers depending on where you are. In France, there are name-controlled versions with strict specifications and some differences between the two. In the US, just throw that out, especially if you are talking about a “goat brie” which has no name-control anywhere, anyway. Even if a few producers may cling to the use of a specific mold or culture as proof that their cheese should really get to use one of the names, it’s only a partial truth and most producers don’t even go that far. In the end, if they use “Brie” or “Camembert” it’s usually just about marketing.**

This is why such an innocent question from a customer can be a loaded question to a cheesemonger. With our July 4 customer, we determined that she was looking for the Woolwich which was out of stock. I suggested the Sevre et Belle which is a little less fatty and a touch stronger. She picked it up and seemed satisfied.

My co-worker and I went back to wrapping up some Beemster Graskaas and talking amongst ourselves. The customer just stood there. After a minute she said, “This is a Camembert, not a Brie!”

I started to try and give the explanation I just wrote above, but I only got as far as, “There is not really any difference…” before she stopped me.

“I DON’T HAVE TO BUY THIS!” she yelled and threw down the cheese. Before either of us behind the counter could think of anything to say, she stomped away to the produce section.

I have to say, this threw me. I asked my co-worker, “Was there something in my tone? Did I say something wrong?” but she was just as mystified. I’m sure the customer had a different perception, but neither of us could figure out what it was. “Should I go talk to her?”

“No, she’s steaming mad.”

But that’s what retail is like sometimes. You can never be sure what people are reacting to and what will set them off, and often it has nothing to do with you. Sometimes though it’s just a mistake that you don’t even hear yourself saying, like the time another worker had to go get a cheese from the walk-in, clear off some counter space (because it was a busy day of production), and then cut a large piece of cheese for a customer. He knew it would take a couple of minutes so he wanted to suggest they walk around the store and do some of their other shopping.

Instead, what he ended up saying was, “Why don’t you just take a walk?” Oops. At least I had a co-worker there to assure me that I hadn’t said something like that.

*Now more than 13 years old maybe we should stop calling it the “new store”. That’s longer than we spent in either of the two earlier locations. Nine years on 16th St. , Twelve years on Mission.
**The other exception to this is that, in this country, butterfat content is often the determining factor in the name. If the producer does not add extra cream (so it remains around 45% butterfat), they’ll call it a Camembert, if they do (a double or triple cream 60-75% butterfat) they’ll call it a Brie. I have not yet seen a “double cream Camembert” but I’m sure I will someday.

4 responses to “Holiday work and the Brie/Camembert conundrum

  1. aha! had one of those moments myself recently. was alone back in the kitchen/cheese area and got slammed… was making two sandwiches, had two people waiting for me to slice meats, and two more waiting for cheese help. a fellow employee brings another customer back, points at me and says, “Emi, our cheesemonger, will help you find what you’re looking for… Hey, Emi, this guy’s looking for…” to which I responded, “Where’s M…? I could use some help back here, I’m juggling half a dozen things at the moment.” looked at the new customer, “It’ll probably be about 10 minutes if you don’t mind waiting.”

    New customer was fine, and coworker ran off to find M. But the customer I was just about to help and start slicing meat for must’ve missed the context and thought the last comment was for her (she had already been waiting around 10min), looked up with wide eyes, dropped both large chubs of salami she was holding for me to slice (luckily on top of aged goudas and not anything squishy), raised her hands and said quite angrily, “Fine! I won’t ask you to slice any meat for me… today!”, turned and stomped away leaving myself and the gaggle of customers completely befuddled.

    the next person waiting was nice enough to pick up the salami bombs and replace them on the shelf and I said to her with a smile, “I’ll be with you in just a few minutes.”

  2. yeah, it’s crazy. Especially because you know, in their mind, they were treated with unforgivable rudeness. They’ll hate you forever too, and you won’t even necessarily recognize them when they return!

  3. Awesome! Celebrating sexual orientation is great, but celebrating the birth of your nation is not cool.

  4. Celebrating nation states often exceeds pride and tips the scales into nationalism. Be careful what identities you choose to endorse. I don’t recall homosexuals, as a group, slaughtering native peoples or having slaves, although I am sure some did. I believe this have never been formally institutionalized in the “gay agenda”, no matter what you opinion of cosplay and light bondage may be, there is no comparison between genocide and slavery.

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