Tag Archives: obituaries

Steve Ehlers, unsung hero of cheese.

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.”
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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.
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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.

(For a more detailed obituary of Steve, please see Karen Herzog’s great tribute here)

Sad week for the cheese community

There was very sad news in the cheese world this week with the passing of two important cheese people.

I did not know Dr. Pat Elliott very well so I will leave memorializing her to others. I do remember meeting her at my very first American Cheese Society conference though. I didn’t know anyone at the bar but she invited me to her table of cheese folks and made me feel welcome. Over the years we always said hello at various national cheese events, but reading her obituary makes me wish I had sought her out and made time to really talk to her. She will be missed.

Fred Hull was a different kind of cheese person. He wasn’t a cheese maker or distributor and he didn’t seem to work in cheese stores very often. I did not know what he did with himself when he wasn’t at the American Cheese Society, but I know that when I would arrive, Fred would have already been there for awhile, doing crucial behind the scenes tasks. If you didn’t work in the judging room, you may never have met him, but he was one of the handful of people who made the whole thing work. He was there to bring out the cheese, to replenish supplies, to make sure everyone had what they needed. He loved being around cheese so much that he would do things, unpaid, that others might complain about while getting a paycheck.

Indeed, Fred was someone who – every year – would help me rekindle my love for my job. As much as I love cheesemongering, there are times in any job where things get you down. The customer service nightmares, the invoice hassles, the cleaning of the drains… whatever. Fred’s enthusiasm for cheese couldn’t help but make you forget all those things. Every year I judged I would start saving little nibbles of the best cheeses so that when he walked by I could share them. I loved watching his reactions, hearing his voice when he would talk about the richness or the complexity or whatever he liked about the sample. I noticed that a lot of the other judges did the same thing. I think our moments with Fred were a treat for all of us. I know he was one of a few people who, just being around, helped me go back to my work refreshed and energized.

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I am having a hard time believing that when I show up to Madison this year to judge. In his years volunteering at the conference he became an integral part of our community. He was not a fame seeker (unlike those of us with enough narcissism to write cheese books). He just seemed to love every minute of the time he got to spend around cheese. He soaked everything in, exuding back a pure joy of appreciation for the time he got to spend a whole week doing nothing but talking cheese, tasting cheese, and being in that rarefied community of cheese people that gather every year in a different state because, sure it’s our job, but also because we are a little obsessed.

I am not sure yet what should be done to honor Fred this year at the conference. But his love of cheese was something that needs to be remembered. Fred will be missed by all the cheese people who knew him.

Cheese Hunter / Episode Two: American Cheeses from Kevin Davidson on Vimeo.

A Sunday spent thinking about death and life (Daphne Zepos, RIP)

I had a death-centric Sunday yesterday, that’s for sure.

First, we did the AIDS Walk out in Golden Gate Park. Our little 4-person team raised almost $3000, and, since there were about 20,000 people out there a lot of money was raised. Overall, more than $2,500,000 was raised yesterday and – even subtracting the pay of some overpaid CEO or ED – it’s a wonderful community event.

It’s funny, I haven’t been for a decade or so and it is a much more celebratory, rather than funereal, event these days in year 25. People had reminders of their dead – names written on their shirts, stuffed animals with name tags, the Quilt etc. – but the atmosphere was very much like a booze-free early morning party. It’s hard to feel sad when Cheer SF, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the Stanford Marching Band is cheering you on.

We walked to the Ocean and caught a slow N bus (construction at Duboce and Church!) back home so I could make the memorial to Daphne Zepos at the Cheese School.

Daphne was a big deal in the cheese world. She was diagnosed three months ago with late stage cancer and passed away (at age 52) before many of us in the cheese world realized that things were that serious and that close. My facebook page and many personal conversations revolved around her death for the last week or so. We are a small community and you know it’s a big deal when one of us gets an NY Times Obit.

I held off from writing anything about her for a couple of reasons. The first is a common feeling… did I know her well enough to claim the space of mourning? That can often be a trap. Being a person who works in a very public place, and having lived within the same 8 block radius for nearly 25 years, many people who have passed through my life have died. It’s not usually my first realization, but I have come to learn over the years that even one nice memory is a gift to those left behind.

The other reason I hesitated was that so many others of you have written so eloquently about what Daphne meant to you. Emi, Anthea, Kirstin… and so many others. My relationship with Daphne was not as profound as the way she mentored many of you. I wanted to leave space for your words.

Daphne and I started working in cheese at around the same time so we had a different relationship. In fact, some reading may remember that we actually had a difficult relationship at the beginning. I won’t go into that except to say that cheese was too important for both of us to not forge a working relationship and a friendship. Over the years I realized that she was an extremely generous person, someone it was a pleasure to be around, someone I always looked forward to seeing at cheese events. Someone who was an extremely important person in our little world.

If you can’t deal with strong, opinionated women, the specialty cheese world is not the place for you. Daphne was always a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes a disorganized force who couldn’t quite seem to arrive on time, but always a force. Some of you who didn’t know her might think that sounds disrespectful, but it was part of her charm. There was always so much to do and so much great cheese. Even though she died at 52, no one can say she didn’t make the most of her time here on the planet. Most profoundly, she respected back and forth and honest discussion in a way that many people can’t handle. While I will agree with her completely on her L’amuse Gouda being the best anywhere, and I rank her Essex St. Comte as right up their with the best, she took it in stride when I told her I preferred my Parmigiano Reggiano to the one she imported. I mean, we argued about it — and I think we both had fun while we staked out our positions — but she understood my opinion.

She never took that kind of thing personally. I think she loved the fact that there was a community in the USA where she could have those kinds of debates. Her tireless work played a part in the fact that that community exists and thrives today.

I actually haven’t come to grips with the fact that she won’t be at the next ACS conference, at the next important cheese tasting, at the Cheese School the next time I am there… I think her loss will be felt even more when I arrive in one of those spaces and she never shows up. I’ll miss the way I wouldn’t see her coming and then suddenly she would appear next to me behind the cheese counter. We don’t allow many people to do that but we would never have thought of saying no to her, (not that she ever asked.) 😉

Goodbye Daphne. You will be missed tremendously. You touched the lives of many, many people. What more could someone really ask for than that?

Ignazio Vella 1928-2011

I think almost anyone who has been in the cheese world for a period of time has their “meeting Ig” story. It’s like a rite of passage. It’s not even just a California thing. Cheese folks came from all over the country to talk to him. He was that important.

He really was. Very few people (at least in this state) had been in the cheese making business as long as he and his family had. Until he could no longer do it, he had his hands in the vat every day. He was a walking history of American cheesemaking and we are all diminished by his passing. He was a cheese elder and that link to our shared oral history is gone forever.

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(Wheels of Vella Dry Jack in their Sonoma aging room)

But it’s not like he was just an old-timer who you’d talk to get some trivial or nostalgic stories. He loved helping new cheese folks. True, he also loved spotting phonies and self-promoters and bursting the bubbles of aspiring cheesemakers who had more fantasy than reality in their plans, but I think most hard-working people are like that. He was hands-on in his own plant but also with the folks at Rogue Creamery who had bought his family’s old blue cheese factory. That Rogue makes some of the finest blue cheese in the country (and with the Rogue River Blue, I’d say the world) is a tribute to David and Cary and all the folks who work there, but also to Ig who traveled up there regularly them turn their product from the mediocre, unmemorable cheese it was when they bought the place, to the amazing cheese it is now.

Traditionally, Vella cheese came from the milk of one main local dairy where the quality and care could be assured. Even writing that sounds like boilerplate now in our current cheese-trendy times, but this was a carry-over from the old dairy days for the Vellas and you knew it was true. Heck, he would bring his dairyman to the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference that he founded with Sheana Davis and Professor Moshe Rosenberg.

Which is the other way he helped cheesemakers. Ig’s legacy lives on in Vella Cheese and Rogue Creamery of course (and through other cheesemakers, who can choose to credit Ig themselves). However, it also lives on in the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference. It’s where I knew him from best since I helped wrangle a number of panelists and speakers for that conference over the years. On the schedule there was always “Ig Time”. From, say, 8:00-9:00 AM he would have the floor to discuss – loosely – whatever the theme of the conference was and what it meant to him. These were always some of the best times for me.

You never really knew what to expect but it would be opinionated, historically-based, and make you think about the big picture cheese issues. Very few people have that ability to make people think big, especially in a trade-based conference. It always set the tone – that lives on today even without Ig’s active participation in the last couple of years – for honest, open discussion, and mutual aid. It’s a far cry from other trade events we’ve all attended filled with panelists doing infomercials for themselves and the “educational programming” really being a sparsely attended front for deal-making, instead of intending to be conversation set up to uplift the whole group.

And yes, I do remember the first time I met Ig. Surprisingly, it wasn’t through Sheana Davis who is my good friend, who continues to run the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, and who Ig mentored for a decade or two.
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(Sheana and Ig at the dedication of the “Ig Bridge”)

No, it was through Andrea London a well-respected cheese person who – at that moment – happened to be my sales rep for a now-defunct company. I had only been working in cheese for a couple of years but she couldn’t believe I hadn’t met Ig. She arranged a tour for us and after meeting the other cheesemakers (who’ve each been there about 30 years themselves by now) and looking at all the aging cheese, we went out to lunch. I made him laugh when I mocked Domestic Parms for lacking in flavor and how much I appreciated the Dry Jack as an alternative. I’m sure in retrospect I did it in a clumsy and ahistorical way but he laughed and I knew the rest of the meal would be ok. I felt even luckier six months later when he almost made someone cry who dared to ask him about the “terroir” of the region.

I feel luckiest now though, thinking about all the times I got to hear Ig talk cheese history. I don’t know anyone who has done more for the world of small-production, hand-made, sustainable cheese. This “artisan cheese” resurgence that we are in right now is the product of a lot of people, but Ig was always an example of how to do it right. His practices and influences are felt all over the state and the country.

Many of the cheeses on the cover of my book were grabbed out of convenience or because of their size and shape. However, as I was leaving our walk-in that day, I made sure I brought a wheel of Dry Jack. There is a reason I chose to hold it in that picture. It was really my tiny way of honoring his work.

Goodbye Ig. You will be missed.

*Sonoma News has a great biographical article on Ig that covers more than just his cheesemaking. Well worth a read.

R.I.P. Poly Styrene

It’s all over the internet and there will be better obits written by folks who knew her or were around to see X Ray Spex play. But Poly Styrene died yesterday after a battle with cancer and it just wouldn’t be right to not mention it.

X Ray Spex was one of those bands that was almost mythical those of us who were into that kind of thing. The only made one record before they dispersed into drugs and Krishna, but what a record it was! Not that anyone I knew had ever seen it… Out of print for a long time by the early ‘80s, we all had crappy cassette copies or vinyl bootlegs. Anything above 4th generation was highly sought after.

Those of us into that kind of thing liked punk rock but weren’t sold on the idea that the newest (at that time) kind of punk was the only punk. Hardcore* was in ascendance in the USA and while I loved that too, I always had a soft spot for edgier new wave and – to be honest – music made by people other than straight white dudes (like me). Much has been written about the way that the more rigid musical style* and violence of early ‘80s hardcore pushed out the women and the queers, but there were also a lot of people who kept those flames alive, trading tapes of bands like Au Pairs, Delta 5, Raincoats, Slits and supporting bands like X or The Mutants even if we didn’t talk about it much.

But X Ray Spex, they were extra special. Maybe the effort we had to go to listen to them added to the intrigue – as did the fact that the lead singer was a biracial, female teen-ager — but they were not a derivative band. They sounded totally new to us. Personal lyrics about the times we were growing up in… alienation that was unafraid… saxophone… no one was like them.

Clearly riot grrrl owed a lot to X Ray Spex. Bikini Kill – even without a horn section – sounded more like them than any other band. It didn’t seem like it in the ‘80s, but their sound, style, and message was dormant but not dead.

Goodbye Poly Styrene. You may have only made one listenable record, but it was one of the best punk records ever.

*I always feel the need to explain this now because things changed so much but “hardcore” in 1981-85 meant stripped down, super fast, political, and not afraid of violence. It did not mean backpacks, whining about one’s feelings, or guitar noodling. Nothing wrong with those things, it’s just not what was going on back then. Minor Threat was mad about social situations, not sulking in the corner.
** My favorite example of this is from the Big Boys. Funk punks themselves, they felt the need to write, “I’m a punk, and I like Sham (69). / Cockney Rejects are the world’s greatest band. /But I like Joy Division, Public Image to / Even that’s not what I’m supposed to do” Imagine a time when liking Joy Division or PIL was seen as selling out!

Jim Boyce R.I.P.

Jim Boyce died last week. He was the long-time owner of Marin French Cheese Company and a really nice guy. I didn’t know him well, really just from going to the same events for many years now, but his loss will be felt by everyone in our cheese community.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Marin French since they are my hometown cheese plant. I grew up stopping there on any family trip to Pt. Reyes or Limantour Beach. While Marin French (or simply The Cheese Factory to locals) is the longest continually operating cheese plant in the country,* it has had a number of owners over the years. Until Jim took over and revamped the operation, I had actually stopped buying their cheese, even though it kind of broke my heart. Jim and family totally turned the operation around.

At the American Cheese Society Competitions, it was always an epic battle between him and Sid Cook as to who would win the most ribbons. True, they usually always had the most entries in the competition as well, but I know I wasn’t the only one who looked forward to their friendly taunting and ribbon-mugging. It was always one of my favorite parts of the conference. It was even suggested that the cheese society get a separate scoreboard for the two of them so we could all know the ribbon count.

I got to sit at the same table as Jim and his wife at one ACS cheese tasting event. We went around the table eating amazing cheeses and when we got to the perfectly ripe and luscious Epoisses, we tried it and I said, “Ah, it’s ok, but it’s no Schloss.”** They laughed, but they also had the good grace to demure.

Marin French has won lots of awards but Jim was always humble and always there to support new cheesemakers and donate cheese to worthy events. He will be missed.

*Eat it Vermont!

**Except for both being washed rind cheeses, they are not really similar beyond both being stinky and pungent. Epoisses is rated as one of the best cheeses in the world and almost no one gives Schloss the credit it deserves for being such a long-time American classic.