Tag Archives: writing

Why I write cheese books

Since I am in that limbo-land between the time of my book being finished — in terms of writing and editing – and the book actually being printed, I’ve been thinking about why I write cheese books.

I am more of a brooder than a quick, witty retort kind of guy. I like to mull things over for awhile, ask questions, read things… and for me the most effective way of thinking things through is to try and write about them. True, some half baked thoughts, missteps, dead ends and embarrassments may come first (in 2015 we usually call these “facebook posts.”) But eventually – at least I hope – coherency emerges, thoughts crystalize, I can start to say something that makes sense.

While I suppose I am a professional writer – I’ve sold two books (once twice) and numerous articles – it is not my main source of income. That gives me a lot of latitude with what I choose to write. Very, very early on with
Cheesemonger — only about 50 draft pages done — I sent it to an agent (not my current agent) because of a personal connection. I wasn’t really ready, and I should have waited, but the response I got was telling. Basically, if I would remove all the monger stories the agent would possibly be willing to sell it as a photo-based coffee table book.

That’s cool. Heck, it probably would have been more profitable. But it’s not why I was writing. My cheese writing “career” started by accident. I had a LiveJournal* and only sporadically mentioned my day job. However, I realized than whenever I would make a cheese post, my comments section would explode. One day I made the mistake of asking if people had any cheese questions. Within about a half hour I had more than 50 questions. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t have the time to answer all those! I deleted the post.

But this outpouring of cheese questions showed me that there was need for more cheese writing. This was 2003 or so. There weren’t many cheese books back then. Indeed, I remember actually knowing the release dates and going to the book store to buy multiple copies of books by Steve Jenkins, Janet Fletcher, and Laura Werlin when they came out. It was tradition in our department that when someone found a new cheese book they would buy as many as they could and donate one to the department and then share them with everybody else. Even with these books though, there was still a thirst for cheese knowledge online. I started writing some LJ posts for fun and to learn more. I sought to answer the questions I was continually being asked, and I craved having a longer conversation about cheese than was usually possible over the cheese counter.

Surprisingly, and this is why Cheesemonger was written the way it was, I also found there was almost as much interest in the job as the cheese. Relaying the workplace realities of someone working 40-some hours a week with cheese was my point: the conversations, the stories, the ironies, the compromises, and putting realities to the mysteries of cheese — not just the specific factoids and statistics that others could provide (and that might be out of date within a year or two) — made writing the book interesting.

I was taken aback when Cheesemonger came out and I found out that wasn’t the way a lot of people write. In the food world especially, I was asked more than once how I went about hiring a ghostwriter.** It seems there is a non-insignificant minority of “readers” who think you would only “write” a book in order to brand yourself. I was just happy someone wanted to publish it.

cheddar w cheese

Fast forward to the last few years. The cheese world has changed a lot. So has the internet. You can actually find reasonably good information on most cheeses online if you know where to look. So many readable, yet technical, books exist now*** that I am absolutely relieved of any responsibility to write at great length about the technical details of cheesemaking. Best of all, people started using the word cheesemonger unironically!

On a road trip with the smartest person I know (my wife Laurie), we started talking about cheese and I realized that there was another cheese mystery I wanted to unravel. Why, when I started working in cheese in 1994, was American-made cheese the object of ridicule? I knew that there had been regional traditions of cheesemaking and long time cheese families. Why did they make the cheeses they do? Why did people who wanted fancy cheese demand imports? Why couldn’t Americans produce cheese as good as the Europeans? Is liking fancy cheese just too snobby for the regular American?

So many questions… I realized that the key to understanding American cheese would be understanding cheddar, America’s most popular cheese for 150 years. Cheddar lead to the industrialization of cheese, it took women out of the make-rooms, and it is beloved just about everywhere in this country in one or more of its many forms: the traditional cloth-bound wheel, the plastic-sealed block, or processed, emulsified, “American” single.

And then I spent a couple of years, working on this idea, on and off. Reading and visiting. Chatting and interviewing. Writing and deleting. And after awhile I realized that not only was cheddar important for the reasons mentioned above, but cheddar also helped usher back in the cheese renaissance we are currently enjoying and which will forever change the reputation of American-made cheese. Good idea Laurie!

There’s a lot more than that in Cheddar (the book) – cheese road trip stories, tasting notes, cheddar factory poetry – but it started because I realized that even though I have worked with cheese for most of my adult life, I didn’t know enough about the most important cheese in the country. I also feel that writing is, in many ways, my duty. I am rooted in the realities of the co-op in which I work and the city in which I live. In a country that can be very divided along rural/urban lines I am lucky that my job gives me the opportunity to interact with people who live in very different places. If I am going to sell cheese from these places — which is where food comes from after all – I also feel the need to add what I can to the complexity of the issues and not just participate in trendy consumer shorthand that comes easily – and can sometimes take over – in a busy, urban grocery environment.

Writing is my offering back to the cheese community that has nourished me in many ways. Writing is about answering my own questions while hoping those questions are interesting to others. Writing is my attempt to have a longer conversation than is possible over the cheese counter during the realities of a retail interaction. This is why I write cheese books.

*LiveJournal was a community-based, semi-private, blogging platform that was state-of-the-art, pre-facebook.
**Now, none of these people had read my book. I assume they just looked at me and decided I couldn’t write one and must have hired someone. I consider this a slight against the honorable profession of ghost-writing. How did they know my book wasn’t terrible?
***Max McCallman/David Gibbons, Gianaclis Caldwell, Paul Kindstedt, etc. just to name a few authors, all with multiple books.

Writing for Pay, writing for fun

As I mentioned awhile back, I have signed a contract for a new book, tentatively titled “The United States of Cheddar” to be published by Chelsea Green. Because of that I likely will not be posting much here for the next few months. This blog isn’t dead, but may just be a little dormant for a while as I do research, interviews and a little travel – as well as work my regular job selling cheese at Rainbow Grocery Co-op.

But I do want to share a few thoughts about writing since I am back to focusing on a longer work. I wrote Cheesemonger, and I am writing this book, because I have things I want to say to (hopefully) an audience that wants to read them. Cheesemonger came out of writing a blog on LiveJournal and realizing that there was not (at that time) credible information available about the reality of working with cheese for a living. When I would write things about cheese, which at first was very rare, I could not believe the response and interest.

I did all that writing for free, of course. It was just me and an mostly unknown but small audience and I was working stuff out, figuring out what was interesting what wasn’t. LJ was a community as well –heck, it’s where I met my soon to be wife – and I did it for fun. When I decided to make it serious – writing a full manuscript and then trying to sell it – I took my writing off LJ and kept my writing on my own computer. I am repeating that process right now. I’m no expert on anyone else’s writing, but I need more breathing room when writing a longer work. It’s harder to hit that 500-1000 word sweet spot that this format demands.

I have been reflecting a little on the nature of this genre now, even as blogging seems to be in descent. I have written here before about the folks who have assumed that Cheesemonger was ghost-written, that is was clearly my attempt to be a food celebrity, to brand myself, a mere stepping stone on my way to the Big Time.* The view is echoed mostly not by folks who want to suck up to me in case I become someone famous, but by people who want to use their assumption of my ambition to get me to do things for them, mostly to supply work for free.

Again, I have written for free and I likely will again. I still write an LJ piece now and then because I enjoy that kind of writing. I write professional quality pieces (as opposed to blog-quality pieces) for free if I think there is a good political reason or if I am moved enough to do so. I even let HuffPo reprint a blog post I made once during initial publicity around Cheesemonger. I am not a purist in this regard.**

What appalls me though is the absolute lack of shame in paying everyone except the writer. For example, just recently I was asked to provide free content to a site sponsored by a large food corporation. This is cliché amongst my writer friends these days, but it may not be to the casual reader or cheeseworker so let me state the obvious: the web designer always gets paid, the person coordinating the website always gets paid, the advertising person always gets paid… everyone gets paid except the writer.

The large food corporation’s recent request is just one example. There are many others in my not-very-famous experience. I was asked to teach a cheese class (for free) to promote my book in one store. I guess they didn’t know how small the cheese world is and that I not only know the person who usually taught there, I know exactly how much they regularly get paid for the same thing I was being asked to do for “exposure.” At one website I provided original writing for free but that wasn’t enough for them. They demanded 15 free copies of the book for giveaways and threatened to promote and give away copies of someone else’s cheese book in conjunction with my article if I (or my publisher) didn’t comply.

I am in a unique position. I work at a cooperative as a cheesemonger. While that is not a job that will get me rich, my great healthcare, decent wages, and discount on food provides for my needs.*** Because of this — as a writer not looking for writing to be my main source of income — I am in prime position to be a scab of sorts. When that corporate-food sponsored site asked, I figured it was my role – especially since taking that unpaid gig would have been a potential conflict of interest with my current book – to at least make the asker answer the question and to make it explicit. Yes, everyone was getting paid except the writer. But, it’s great exposure.

And the thing is, that they aren’t necessarily wrong. If one is not counting on the small amount of income one would get for that kind of writing to pay the rent it, theoretically, does put someone in the position of a bigger pay-off down the road. But only if that person has a day job or a wealthy spouse to get by in the meantime.

But it’s not like that “bigger pay-off” is usually very big. Even though people kind of know better I still get a fair amount of “Wow, you still work here after the book came out?” from customers. Surprisingly, a book does not necessarily make one rich! Anyways, I am not complaining, just explaining. I’m sure I could have been smarter or more ambitious about my “brand”, optimizing my exposure for more monetization… but honestly, I would rather just do my day job most of the time.

I write here (in my non-monetized blog!) because I like to write or because I have something interesting for fun to share. I write elsewhere professionally for pay. It’s funny how often the former is seen as a reason to ignore the latter.

*(BTW, Food Network folks, my email is the best way to get hold of me gordon.zola.edgar at gmail dot com. Thanks!)
**A couple of articles here for further study: from The Nation. From the New York Times.
***In present-day San Francisco this is constantly a source of stress, but that’s another article for another day. If I got these wages/benefits/healthcare in another city I would probably own a home and have fewer worries.