I keep forgetting that I should be on vacation right now. We were going to head down to San Diego for Laurie’s B-day, catch a Giants game or two, and just have a mellow little road trip. I probably could have taken the time – cheese is still solid on workers – but even though I haven’t had a vacation in a long time, it’s just not the right time to leave work.
Day-to-day work things are continuing to normalize in the new normal that is defining our lives right now. I feared that once the novelty wore off, people would start complaining about the lines, take their (valid but misdirected) frustrations out on us, make it harder for us to keep going but –while there has been a little of that – we’ve been spared the reactions that we’d expect if anything like this happened at a pre-March 2020 normal time. “Normal” becomes relative pretty quickly, eh?
I am on an emergency committee at work and yesterday -– hopefully this won’t jinx it – we went 24 hours without texts/email for the first time since the committee was formed. I really thought by now that we would have lost half our workers and be deciding whether we could keep our doors open. We have talked contingencies for that and worse, but so far, so good. Social distancing is working. I give a rare thanks to our elected officials for doing the right things at the right times in the Bay. Every time I talk to my friends in NY I think about how light we are getting off right now and I’m grateful, even as I am enraged and saddened at what is happening there.
In the first couple of weeks I was working pretty much every day and now I have settled into a 4 day a week, 10-12 day schedule. But the days are getting closer to 10 hours now. And yeah, I am doing some committee work at home on the other days, but not too much. As I have said previously, I am glad I have a job, a paycheck coming in, and work at a democratic workplace.
We started requiring all workers to wear face-coverings last week (customers, you are next!) and it’s been killing me to read reports from other grocery workers where workers are being discouraged or prohibited by their management for doing the same. While it sucks wearing a mask – oh, how many times I have already picked up cheese to smell it and realized I couldn’t! – it’s an obvious thing to do for the protection of “essential workers” and to prevent grocery workers being a vector in spreading the virus.
I wonder at times if it’s the right thing to do to keep working, and not being on vacation gave me another chance to reflect on that. I think every single unexpectedly “essential worker” has had these thoughts. Helping bring food to the community is crucial as well as morally important. So is doing what I can to support farmers and cheesemakers who might not make it through this shut down, economically-speaking. Still, every day I go to work I think of the number of people I am in contact with and the critical control points where I could be exposed. We are not healthcare providers or first responders — even if we are filling a need –these are fairly new thoughts to us. The saving grace for me is working at a place where I know that worker safety is important. I think if I worked at a different kind of place, coming in to work would be a lot harder. And I might well have taken that vacation even if it just meant staying home.
It’s been ten days since San Francisco announced the Shelter in Place order and there’s a weird settling in that’s going on. A few media-moments aside, almost everyone has changed their behaviors. I even walked past the Dog Park yesterday and was all, “WTF? Why is everyone playing hackey sack? Did the Dead re-form or something?” Nope, just a bunch of neighbors out with their dogs and standing in circles six to ten feet apart.
It’s only been ten days of “stay at home” but it’s been about 4 weeks since the store felt normal. Our metering of customers gives a false sense of calm to the store during the workday. Inside the store it feels slow and peaceful. It’s like a normal day, albeit one where many people are wearing masks, gloves and the cheese workers cannot stand next to each other in our small prep area. Well, technically, one person can price while another does dishes but that’s stretching it…
There is plenty of cheese. I mean geez, just last year or so the US hit records for cheese in cold storage. But make no mistake, this is a crisis for (among many others) small production cheese makers, stand-alone cheese shops, and distributors, especially ones who serve restaurants. I have been getting many calls and emails from folks knowing that we are open, essential, and busy but I just can’t help many of them. Customers are only buying certain cheeses right now. Even with a long history, loyal customers, and (if I say so myself) a good cheese reputation, big blocks of Parm, Cheddar, Jack, and Mozzarella are what is selling. Pre-grated tubs and shredded packages. Lots of ricotta too. I think a lot of lasagna is being made.
(Weirdly, the one cheese I didn’t expect to sell at such an astronomical level is paneer. Was there an “Indian Food for the Apocalypse” article I missed? We always sell a lot of paneer but we sold three weeks worth in four days and I got shorted on my re-order. We should be fully stocked again on Friday afternoon though!)
We haven’t sampled cheese to customers in over three weeks. Initially (way back in another lifetime four weeks ago) I thought we could sample on pieces of parchment paper and keep things safe but after the first two customers licked their fingers I knew we had to stop. In a grocery store environment, it is next to impossible to sell higher-end, artisan cheese that is not well-known without giving samples. I mean, everyone knows Cowgirl Mt. Tam in this city and its doing fine, but the new, amazing small-scale cheese we were going to promote in March? It’s hurting.
Every distro in the Bay has contacted me trying to sell product they suddenly have no outlet for. In a normal week I would be jumping at these offers. But these are not normal weeks. I just got off a conference call organized by the fine folks at The Monger where I was asked, among other things, how should reps or cheese companies approach buyers right now to sell the product they need to sell and can’t.
I didn’t answer as fully as I could have so I will write what I should have said. San Francisco was the first city to go on lockdown. I have no idea how many emails I have gotten in the last week that I haven’t even responded to. I don’t plan to ever read them, really.
To be fair, I am in a unique position as a buyer, floor worker, and a member of the emergency committee set up to respond to the crisis, but I have had no time at all to deal with extras. I have been underwater and, until recently, without real days off. Vendor deadlines and out-of-stock products change daily and I have missed more deadlines (that I didn’t see had changed) in the last two weeks than in the last 25 years.
So my advice? If you don’t have a previous relationship, don’t contact buyers for a week or two into their lockdowns. We are creating dozens of new procedures and policies that all needed to happen yesterday in order to safeguard our health and the health of the community. We may have at-risk or sick family. We are likely saying goodbye to some co-workers for the duration because they need to stay home to care for their kids or because they have underlying health issues. My reaction to a sales pitch from a stranger that isn’t taking that into account is likely to be hostile.
But now, nearly two weeks in, I can start to see things stabilize in their own weird ways. We will soon start to brainstorm how to support cheesemakers who need support, likely starting with the ones we already work with. But I/we will also be open to other possibilities, assuming that we don’t start to lose a significant percentage of our workers. Also, tbh, many of our cheese workers, unable to work in pairs as usual, are doing duty in cart sanitizing, customer metering and crowd control shifts that we have not previously had.
I saw the first scale-scale family cheesemaker shutting down for the duration yesterday. They are well-established, make fairly perishable cheese, and sell to a lot of restaurants. There will be more. It’s a very hard business for the small-timer in good times, so some won’t be back. That thought haunts every monger right now.
(If cheese workers have any questions about safety procedures feel free to email me directly at gordon.zola.edgar at gmail dot com. I will respond when I can.)
(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)
I thought I’d dust off this ancient-looking blog and start to keep a diary of this time of virus and anxiety from the perspective of a grocery worker. While most people I know are off work right now, fearing for both their health and their jobs, we are working all the time. In fact I have been wanting to write something for days but haven’t had the time or energy. It seems important to document a little of this to remember later. If there is a later…
It’s nice to be officially considered an “essential worker” for once. I mean, I’ve always considered the big picture of what we do – bringing food to the people – essential. And I always knew that in the back of my mind, because I like reading history, that grocery workers have had a special place in times of turmoil and trouble: wars, disasters, general strikes, etc. People need to eat.
One of the reasons I like working with food is because it is such an essential need for everyone. But that has never been more clear than the last few weeks when reaction to COVID-19 has made our store busy in an unprecedented way.
Three weeks ago I was comparing it to Y2K, but we surpassed that a long time ago.
Two weeks ago I was joking that this is all the work of the food holidays with none of the fun. It was fun to say that at the time.
This week, after it was clear that a shelter in place order would be given, things amped up even more. I have no comparison for it at all.
I’ve worked at this co-op for almost 26 years. With holidays, it may be extra busy for a while but there are breaks. As a buyer of cheese – a less perishable perishable – I am used to a pattern of buying where you usually put on the brakes after a certain amount of days because you can predict a slowdown. After two solid weeks of solid busy all my experience told me that it couldn’t keep going like it was… Instead of braking I have my foot jammed on the accelerator.
On a micro level – a level I still have to operate on in my daily work life — I get itchy when I have less than three whole wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano in stock. Right now everything we have is on the shelf. We are doubling the amount of commodity blocks we cut at a time and still running low or out before we can replenish. Because of the nature of cheese in cold storage, we have less out-of-stocks than other departments but the nature of distribution these days is “lean” and “efficient” which means more disruption in the supply chain right now.
This may be different in other stores and other places – a large-scale worker-owned co-op is a special place — but I am seeing people stock up and buy a lot, but not seeing hoarding. I am seeing co-workers trying to figure out the safest ways to do things in an unknown environment. I am also see us working way too much to try and meet demand. I am seeing regular customers here on unusual days, their patterns disrupted. Mostly, I am seeing people be extra caring to each other, even if in fleeting and physically distant ways. I am also watching people trying to interact without the familiar touching or even facial expressions when people are trying to stay 6 ft. apart and half the folks I see are wearing some kind of mask.
We have instituted measures that even a week ago I didn’t think we could implement. We are only allowing a certain number of people in the store at once. We have a line to get in where people are waiting six feet apart. We have shortened our hours (for a list of like 10 reasons). We are trying to reserve 9-10 for seniors and most at-risk members of the community. We are offering gloves to every customer.
But we are making these things up as we go. Some won’t work out and may cause more hassle before we get them worked out. Everything right now is on a trial basis and a social experiment. There will be lines and the few things open will take longer. That’s our (temporary) reality. We’ve come a long way in a short time
And let’s not kid ourselves, this is intense. There is a frenetic energy because of the crowds and the multiple legitimate anxieties everyone, including those of us still working right now, is holding right now. We are all pretty exhausted. Essential, but exhausted.
(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)
I’ve been trying to figure out for a while how to mark my
25th anniversary working at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative and working
in cheese. It seems like a moment in
time to honor, but my day-to-day life is the same no matter what the calendar
says. It would be easy to let it slide
by unnoticed as I do my regular thing: buy cheese, cut cheese, wrap cheese,
display cheese, de-mystify cheese…
But it is unusual in this day and age. To work in the same place at (basically) the same job for that long is notable. I think the reason I have stayed in the same place for so long is because my job is incredibly intertwined with my workplace and the experiment in radical democracy it represents. I’m incredibly proud to work at Rainbow. There is nothing else like it exactly… 200+ worker owners and no traditional top-down management. Nothing is without problems and challenges, but we work in a sphere that inspires me all the time. There is no real roadmap to follow. Other worker-owned cooperatives of our size mostly have more traditional management structure. Though the day-to-day is often typical grocery retail, the big picture always keeps me going. We are a workplace democracy in a world increasingly hostile to democracy.
Despite what many people in the outside world assume, I am not in charge of the cheese department. I am the buyer, which means I am empowered to make a number of decisions, but I am accountable to all people in the department and they re-vote me in as buyer during my yearly evaluation. Feeling responsibility to be on storewide committees keeps things from ever being bored. The ability to take time off committees has enabled me to do things like write two books about cheese. Indeed, during my time at Rainbow I have been on the Donations Committee, the Grievance Committee, New Worker Orientation Committee, Anti-Oppression Work Group, the Co-op Committee, the Storewide Steering Committee, the Board of Directors and a million short-term projects not solely related to cheese. I have learned from all of it but some of these groups were a lot more fun than others. Like mucking out the drains of a cheese cooler though, serving time on the no-fun committees is just something you have to do because the work needs to happen.
Cooperatives brought me to Minneapolis in 2004* where, as part of an eight-person contingent from our store we helped found the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, facilitating most group discussions at the historic, and sometimes contentious, first ever national meeting of Worker Co-ops.** Kathleen Shannon Finn, at the time the President of the American Cheese Society — and one of the people who taught me the most about cheese — tried to recruit me for the Board of Directors of the American Cheese Society but I was too busy doing co-op stuff in those years. I still am a little sad I couldn’t do both, especially at that time when ACS was really starting to take off.
My timing in cheese was great if totally accidental. I started going to ACS conferences when they still only had about 300 people attending. Because of that I was able to meet most of the folks who were making the artisanal cheese movement happen before people started calling them “rock stars.” But again, that was just luck and timing. I didn’t get hired for the first job I applied to at Rainbow and if I did, I wouldn’t have worked in cheese. But, since I did get hired into cheese, and I lived in the Bay Area when ACS was having a conference in the North Bay, I went even though I felt weird and out of place. And it was just one of those places where I felt weird and out of place until at some point I just didn’t.
When we hire new cheese workers I think all the time about how much harder it is for them than it was for me. After a month on the job — and certainly after I started meeting cheesemakers – I knew more than 95% of our customers. Partly that was because few people with cheese knowledge came into our store at that time, but mostly because customers know so much more now than they used to. That’s a victory for the cheese world for sure, but it makes it much harder for new workers because expectations are so much higher. Similarly, starting as a cheesemaker is much harder. I remember conversations with customers in the 1990s who were buying local cheese even though it was inconsistent – and honestly not very good — because they felt very strongly that supporting hand-made American cheese was the only way it would ever become better. A lot of that stuff would be flat-out rejected as unsellable now, at least in the Bay Area market. New cheesemakers have a lot less margin for error.
Cheese brought me to France for the first time, partially funded my honeymoon in Austria,*** and got me an amazing few days in Italy. If the May 1994 Cheese Department hiring committee told me that in my job interview I would have told them to lay off the MDMA. Cheese has also brought me to places all over the United States I never would have been otherwise. Though my wife still owns part of a family farm, there is no rural in my immediate family for generations and the opportunity to meet and befriend people I would never have met otherwise is one of the things I appreciate most about my last 25 years.
One of the best things about Rainbow is that the co-op enables people to stick around longer than at most places. At one point we have five people who each had twenty years experience in cheese. That made our cheese department very special but eventually the gentrification of San Francisco destroyed the possibility of us staying together. I will admit, the break-up of that group was the closest I have come to leaving Rainbow. We were all about the same age, many of us became adults together, knew each other’s families, hook-ups, and exes. Knew all the same gossip about our co-workers and knew all the idiosyncrasies of our weirdest customers.
I went through a unacknowledged mourning period for a bit when I realized I was the last one left, but then an amazing thing happened. The power of our democratic workplace exerted itself and we got a whole new crop of new members who, while I can’t have the same intimate relationships, born of decades of familiarity, can improve the department and keep the work fun in different ways. What can we do with the cheese power we have developed over the years? Who can we support? How can our urban outpost support the things we want to support in agriculture and economics? How do we maintain democracy in the workplace over the long haul?
I guess what I really want to say is thanks to everyone who made this possible. I learned, when trying to thank everyone in the acknowledgements page of Cheesemonger, that one always forgets someone or mis-spells some names, so I will not try to name everyone here. But I am so grateful to work with so many amazing people over the years at the ‘Bow. I am also so thankful to meet so many amazing mongers, co-op people, distributors, importers, writers, book store folk and cheesemakers — some of whom have even opened their homes to me — and many more who have opened up their aging rooms and make rooms and brought me places I thought I’d never go. If you think I might be thinking of you, I am.
So 25 years…. And counting! What should we do next?
*I wish I had pics from that week. Does anyone? ** Little known fact: before this founding the USA was one of the few industrialized nations without a national organization. Canada represented us in International co-op circles. Thanks Canada! *** Speaking of weddings:
Maybe I should have order customized cheese for my anniversary!
I think a lot of us go through withdrawal after CheeseCon is over. Mongers always have access to great cheese, so it’s not that. It’s the community that comes together once a year that’s impossible to duplicate. Even as it often energizes me all the way through the holidays, it’s always hard to leave.
Randomly Bumping into American Cheese Society Lifetime Achievement Award Winners and Other Amazing Folks. This is a reminder that we are living in what will be looked upon as a significant era of cheese history. It’s easy to take for granted because almost all of these folks are down-to-earth and easy to talk to but we cannot let ourselves do it. On the morbid side of the equation, when I last saw Daphne Zepos and Steve Ehlers I didn’t think it would be my last. On the less morbid side, people move on. When I first started attending, I could not have conceived of a conference, or an ACS, without Kathleen Shannon Finn and Ricki Carroll, but here we are.
By the way, congrats Peg and Sue! Well-deserved. Well-deserved.
Normalization of Cheese Obsession There were 1300 people at this conference. How many more cheese-obsessed professional — not just widget movers — actually exist in our business? Double that number? Quadruple that number? No matter how you cut it, we are a community of less than 10,000 people in a country* of 320 million. It’s a very special time when we can come together and be the majority in a small geographical space.
It’s why I always think that the best Cheesecons are in small cities or places. I’ve had many fantasies in my lifetime about winning the lottery and setting up a town of political activists or punks and artists, but this is our little temporary zone of cheesies, Cheesetown USA, that we create every year. It likely wouldn’t be as fun — or intellectually stimulating — if we really lived this way all year long, but it’s awesome as an curd oasis in a year of whey.
(Awards Ceremony, Denver Sheraton)
The High Level of Cheese Talk It’s not anti-customer to say that I have explained what the crunchy bits in cheese are roughly 10,000 times. I enjoy doing it. But going to a panel that discusses the advances in our understanding of these crystals over the last decade is a once-a-year opportunity. I mean, in 1996 I called them salt crystals because that was the best explanation of anyone I had access to at the time. We are in an artisan cheese-science explosion!
(Thanks to the amazing Paul Kindstedt and Pat Polowsky!)
PETA Protests I have spent a large part of my life being a protestor in uncomfortable situations. I am here to tell you that no one protests insignificant people. Look how far we’ve come that we are protestable! Also, PETA is stupid.
And hey, how come I didn’t know there was an anti-DeVos protest in Denver when I was there? I would have been with The People in the streets for that.
(Yes, I am in this picture of an anti-Reagan protest in 1984. Can you find me?)
Cheese Surprises On such a stage, surprises are magnified. This year had them in abundance. As a judge in the competition, I ranked two companies I never heard of** in my (personal) top five: Idyll Farms in Michigan and Shepherds Manor Creamery in Maryland.
Speaking of judging, the top two Best of Show winners were farmstead!*** Best of Show: Tarentaise Reserve by Farms For City Kids Foundation/Spring Brook Farm. 2nd Place: St. Malachi by The Farm at Doe Run. 3rd Place: Harbison by Jasper Hill. I mean holy crap! 150 years of industrialization of cheesemaking left farm-made cheese practically extinct before ACS was formed. We’ve come a long way when the two best cheeses in the competition – our largest competition ever with over 2000 cheeses entered– are from single-farm sources. That is truly something spectacular.
(Idyll Farms cheese at Festival of Cheese)
So I know it’s hard. Personally I try to hold onto the conference feeling as long as possible. Organize those pics so you can remember the contexts. Hold on to those hand-outs for future reference. Re-write those notes so you can understand them layer. Write about your experiences. Share what you learned with your co-workers. Call and email those business cards you collected, even/mostly just to talk.
It is an amazing thing to be able to have in our lives and these things are not necessarily permanent, historically speaking. Savor it, spread the cooperative nature of the event, and, hopefully, see you next year.
(some of the cheese judges from 2017)
*I know ACS technically includes all of the Americas and we also have international members from other continents but clearly it draws mostly from the USA.
**Judging is anonymous so I didn’t learn this until the awards ceremony.
***Farmstead means cheese made only with the milk from one farm produced on that farm. I edited this paragraph because someone not fromJasper Hill gave me some bad info. Harbison is never farmstead ( I had thought this batch was an exception) and this batch was a blend of Jasper Hill milk and that of another farm in Greensboro. Sorry.
Next up after Pecorino Romano was Parmigiano Reggiano. We arrived near Modena at twilight and visited a Parmigiano Reggiano producer and ager. This was not the caseificio we buy from but it was still interesting to see. Much bigger and more modern than our caseificio, this factory makes about 100 wheels a day.
Cheese professionals hold on for a second because I know you know this — while 100 wheels doesn’t sound like a whole lot, you have to remember that these wheels are 85lbs each when sold and this is a lot of cheese. Even the biggest producers don’t make much more than double this amount per day. While there a number of producers who’ve recently gone out of business– especially post-earthquake — Parmigiano Reggiano, despite being sold all over the world, is still a cheese (mostly) made with very traditional methods in the region where it was born.
(Here are pictures of an aging room after the earthquake that was posted on the wall)
Still, most of our Parm sightseeing would wait until the next day. That night we just watched the the milk truck to come and deliver the milk for tomorrow’s cheese. Why is this important? Because the milk has to be stored overnight and then skimmed in order to make Parmigiano Reggiano the right way. There wasn’t a lot of action going on, but there’s no Parm in the morning without the milk from the night before.
And that’s kinda beautiful:
I should note that this trip was made possible by Michele Buster at Forever Cheese and Brad Dube at Food Matters Again. Ethics require me to say that you should take everything written here with a grain of salt since they took me on the trip. Of course, I also carried these cheeses for decades without getting a trip to Italy so keep that in mind too.
Judging was great, like usual. I am in awe of the way that every year has more entries and yet the process gets smoother and smother. Think of the logistics of receiving, organizing, logging, and tempering 1843 cheeses… it’s really pretty amazing. I’m indebted to all these folks for doing the behind-the-scenes work.*
Every year, people ask me for details about the judging so this post is hopefully going to answer those questions. There were 21 teams of judges this year, the most ever. Each team consisted of a technical judge and an aesthetic one. Technical judges are almost all dairy scientists with a few other well-recognized experts thrown in for good measure. Aesthetic judges are recognized as the prettiest people working in cheese so I was really happy to be chosen again. I still have it at 48 I guess… I credit all the butterfat.
See, here’s my most recent picture. It was taken yesterday (unlike my author photo!)
Seriously though, the aesthetic judges are people who have worked in cheese for a while, shown some degree of expertise, and usually have more retail/distributor experience than scientific training.* The American Cheese Society judging system pairs these two types of judges in order to recognize the importance of technical rigor to cheesemaking, but also acknowledge that imperfect cheeses and unexpected flavors can create amazing cheese as well. The technical judge is the bad cop, starting at 50 and taking away points for defects. The aesthetic judge is the good cop, starting at zero and awarding up to 50 points. The scores are combined for a possible, but unlikely, total of 100.
We taste about 40-50 cheeses on day one and another 40-50 at the beginning of day two in order to get through all the categories. Later in that second day, we reconvene to taste the winners from every category and decide on our individual favorites. We rank those 1-3 and they receive weighted points which are then added up to decide the Best of Show. It’s gruelingly awesome! It’s an endurance of amazement! It teaches lactose tolerance!
A score of 100 is unlikely but this year we had a first in the history of ACS… a four way tie for 1st place in the “Open – soft-ripened cheeses – Made from cow’s milk” category. Since I got to try all four during the Best of Show process, I can attest that they were all amazing cheeses and it would have been hard to deduct or not award full points. Mountian Ash by Sweet Rowen Creamery, Ashley by MouCo Cheese, and Harbison and Moses Sleeper by Jasper Hill got the blue ribbon(s) and these are some of the best soft-ripened cheeses made in this country for sure. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to conceive of these being made in the USA. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in this cheese renaissance.
Other judges have their own methods, but when I am deciding on BoS I have a system. First I go through the room tasting all 100-or-so cheeses taking notes on my favorites. This usually eliminates all but about 20 cheeses. Then I go through and taste all of those again deciding on the cheeses that I would feel good about voting for in my three BoS votes. This number varies from year-to-year. Sometimes I have an obvious top three. Sometimes I consider about a dozen very seriously. This year I settled in on a top seven or eight, any of which I would have been happy to see win the big title.
(photo by Rachel Perez)
Mostly, I don’t know until the awards guide is released after the Awards Ceremony who I voted for. It’s a blind judging. However, as a monger, I regularly handle some cheeses that are very distinctive so a few times every judging I have to remind myself to judge the cheese, not the sometimes long history I have had with a cheese. I feel like I do that with integrity partly. I am so honored to be asked to judge this competition, I would do nothing less. All five cheeses** that placed in Best of Show were in my top tier so I felt pretty on par with most of the other judges, based on the result.
I love the purity of those two days before the conference starts. I know I have said this before, but the cheeses have to speak for themselves for likely the only time in their lives in that judging room. No sales pitches, no heart-warming origin stories, no brokers, no prices, no labels. I feel like it re-calibrates my cheese senses, especially being in a quiet room instead of a store and sitting next to a technical judge instead of a sales rep. Thanks ACS!
*I was going to link to the letter from John Antonelli, Judging Chair, but it’s not online yet. I will link to this when it’s up because I don’t want to forget anyone or not acknowledge folks who were so far behind the scenes that I didn’t see them.
**Someone asked me so I looked it up, I was asked to judge at ACS for the first time after working 13 years in cheese.
***I will talk about them, and others, in my awards ceremony post.
This is my favorite picture of Steve Ehlers (far right), taken at the Burlington ACS. Maybe not the most flattering, but one which really captured the nature of the ACS back in those days. I like to call it “The pageantry of the ACS awards ceremony.”
Steve Ehlers was pretty much the first cheese person I met outside of California when I started going to cheese conferences. Many California folks from the slightly earlier generation of the American cheese renaissance helped me develop my practical knowledge, taste, and historical interest in cheese – people like Kathleen Shannon Finn, Andrea London, Ig Vella, Jennifer Bice, Mary Keehn, Judy and Charlie Creighton, Dan Strongin… But Steve was probably the first to show this interested but insecure Californian that he could be part of the cheese world on a larger level.
He welcomed me into the American Cheese Society. I don’t remember how we first met – probably when I volunteered to help prepare cheeses for judging at the first Louisville ACS – but I was feeling overwhelmed being at an event where everyone seemed to know each other and I was one of the youngest people there. Back in those days, the ACS conferences were only a couple hundred people and I wasn’t sure I could fit in with the group or, honestly if I wanted to.
Steve and I hit it off right away. We had common interests in the world outside of cheese, which always helps, but I don’t know if I have ever met a more friendly supportive person. Later I watched him do the same with plenty of other new cheese folks. He easily could have been too busy – running a shop, being on the ACS board – but he always made time for people. He really exemplified everything I love about the artisan cheese world: friendly, smart, willing to share practical knowledge and oral history, encouraging, disapproving of pretension, non-self aggrandizing, and always seeking out ways to help people in our community and cheesemakers having a hard time. These are the qualities that helped make me decide that I could find a home in the world of cheese. Steve is not the only person I can thank for that, but he’s on a short list.
The funniest moment I can remember with Steve, when I really learned he was one of my people, might not be funny to you. Steve and I shared an interest in history and the history of radical political movements of the ‘60s. His Facebook icon – not that he ever Facebooked (smart man) — was this iconic picture from the rebellion of Paris ’68.
So we were hanging out at a Sheana Davis event during Fancy Food week in San Francisco and I introduced him to a local cheese sales rep. Upon learning Steve lived in Milwaukee, the rep said, “Oh, I have relatives in Wisconsin. My cousin is a weatherman in Madison.” Steve and I started laughing uncontrollably and the rep is probably still trying to figure out what was so funny, not knowing that when we hear Madison and weatherman together in a sentence, we both hear it with a capital W.
We always bonded over being some of the few people at ACS in cheese retail or distributing that stayed in the same job for more than 20 years. It’s a small club. Me, Juliana and Alma from the Pasta Shop, Helder from Zuercher, Patty and Steve from Larry’s Market and a few others… Going to Larry’s was something I did every time I went to Milwaukee. It’s a small but mighty place and it always feels like a home away from home.
I can only imagine what his family and closer friends must be going through because Steve was one of those people that just brightened up every room and every interaction. He is a real unsung hero of the American cheese renaissance. It’s actually really hard for me to imagine our community without him.
I am going to miss Steve a lot. And I know I am not the only one.
I almost didn’t go to the American Cheese Society conference this year. I often skip the East coast years of the rotation due to time and expense. Plus, this year my awesome co-worker Megan had won a trip to Vermont and would be there officially repping the store.
But then I realized two things. One, I have a book coming out in October so it would probably be a good idea to remind people I’m alive, especially since I went blog-absent for about a year and limited my social media while I finished working on it. The second reason was less tangible and more personal: I just miss the conference so much the times I don’t go.
So I worked it out. I flew across county to be there for two days. Unlike years past I have no reports from the judging room, no farm trip stories, and very few pictures. But I am still glad I went. It’s just totally rejuvenating to see so many great people all in one place, in a cheese-rich environment.
Meet the Cheesemakers is a particularly cheese-rich environment. Here’s a beauty from Plymouth Artisan Cheese to whet your appetite:
It’s also amazing to see so many people putting in so much work to make it happen. I worry about trying to list people because, when you do, you always leave people out. Since this was my first year in a long time that I was just an attendee, I was reminded as an “outsider” how much effort it takes to put on the event that can look seamless if you aren’t in the conference rooms before and after an event. Thanks to everyone involved.
As for the conference, I went to a great panel on “The Science of Artisan Cheese.”* It was so encouraging to see the linkages being created between traditional cheesemakers in different countries and the microbial science community. Most of the actual facts relayed were depressing: the FDA using ridiculously outdated testing, non-pathogenic bacteria being treated as an indicator of pathogenic bacteria, one-size (and that size is BIG)-fits-all rules. But the amount of people in the room, and the quality of knowledge of the presenters AND the audience… we have to acknowledge that we have come a long way in a very short time. Some folks left discouraged, but I left energized.
Cheese-wise, I didn’t even get a shot at tasting the Best in Show (first time ever!). But I loved the LaClare Cave-Aged Chandoka (aged by Standard Market) which was runner-up and I have raved about the 3rd place Harbison by Jasper Hill Farm many times before.
I had a few other favorite new-to-me cheeses as well. I’ll post about them in the upcoming days.
See you all in Des Moines in 2016.
*In just one of the amazing ways in which the cheese society has grown, I used to feel obligated to sum up all my panels for cheese people and interested folks who couldn’t attend. Back in 2002 or whatever, resources were fewer. Now they are all re-capped on the ACS website. Just awesome.
We went out for a fancy meal earlier this week. I wasn’t really thinking cheese when we left the house — I don’t generally order the cheese plate at local restaurants since I get enough cheese at work. However, a side dish we ordered made me realize I had to share this.
This is the roasted corn side dish at The Commissary. Best use of Idiazabal ever.
I mean just look at that! Roasted corn on the cob, Idiazabal cheese, Marcona almonds… total corn pr0n! (Thanks to Lenny for telling us to order it.)