So, I’m at the gynecologist, on my back with my ankles in the stirrups.
Doc: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I’m a cheesemonger.”
Doc: “No kidding?!” as he removed his hands from down under and rolled his chair back.
Doc: “That’s got to be the best job ever!” and scooted back up to the plate.
Me: “Yeah, I bet you say that to all the girls.”
Doc: “No really. I love cheese. What an amazing job.”
Me: “Yeah, it’s great. Really great. And no offense, but I’m not sure I’d be so happy to roll up to this place and do a day’s work, but that’s just me.”
Now, I realize that this is a normal bedside tactic to relax a patient, but I get this all the time. Usually, I have my knickers on, though. If I had a nickel for every guy who has said this to me, I’d have enough nickles for a Mexican Coke. And the ones who look like they have the most responsibility are the most sincere when they say it. I’m patient with these fellows. I let them have their middle-aged moment of regret and then casually segue way back to the task at hand. A gentleman, now a CEO, once told me his most beloved job was the summer he slung fish at Pike Place Market in Seattle. He told me, “It was so *od damn awesome to work so hard with a bunch of misfits. Eat what other vendors would give us or trade fish for. Go home, drink a six pack and do it again the next day. It was the most joyous job I ever had.” It was a cinematic moment à la Cameron Crowe.
These conversations can be intense and surreal. I’m a Pisces. People get real with me. If it were a movie, if I dared the guy to trade jobs with me for life, I know they would do it in a second. Trouble is I wouldn’t trade my job for a boardroom any day.
Just don’t make me this offer on the first of the month.
The truth is: slinging cheese is amazing, and I had had a bunch of kick-ass jobs before this one.
Kick-ass is relative.
One job, my first, was wrapping Christmas gifts at a department store when I was 16. My mother is responsible for landing me that job against my will. I learned to wrap a gift with no seams showing, only along an edge, and could do it with no tape whatsoever. That last challenge was one I gave myself. Hence, I now can wrap a piece of cheese suitable to place under a tree. (Don’t snicker. This is a skill.) When I had caught up on gift-wrapping, and because I get bored and can’t be idle, I would wander out to the shoe department and randomly start selling shoes. Mind you, this was not something I was supposed to be doing but turns out I can sell shoes, too!
Another job was at Terra Toys, in Austin, Texas in 1989. The store only stocked the best, highly selective and aesthetic European and American toys. Stuff you thought they stopped making. No crap allowed, unless it was Sanrio! Why did they hire me? Because I could gift wrap. True Story. It was like working in a doll house, only the owners were Scientologists (amazing!). That job taught me quality and the value of something hand crafted. We don’t have to be nostalgic for old artisan ways–they are still happening all over the world by committed craftspeople. The toys were meant to span generations and were created to inspire. Sounds like cheese, don’t you think?
I’m going to gang other jobs in a lump. Being a preparator in an art gallery and teaching art. These jobs go in tandem with being an artist. My job as a preparator was to handle precious, fragile objects of art that were expressions of an artist. Handle even the most frivolous of objects, with cotton gloves and respect. Place them in relationship to each other to emphasize their meaning, formal relationships and most importantly, create context. How does this relate? I’m so happy you asked. A cheesemonger curates cheese. We select it. It is there for a reason. A painting is activated every time you stand in front of it no matter how old it is. Cheese is millenia old and in some cases you are eating something ancient. Think about that: ancient! There are so few things in our daily lives that are ancient. Revel in them.
Just like John Currin’s painting Nude on a Table, 2001 is referencing Annibale Carracci’s Dead Christ, c. 1594, the flavor profile of Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company is referencing Beaufort, a French heirloom, the prince of cheeses. In the case of a 20 pound Spring Brook Farms, Tarentaise, the concave edge of the wheel is also referencing Beaufort. The concave edge in Beaufort is there to allow a firm grip on the ropes tethered around the 154 pound wheel to be easier carried by a horse down an Alpine range. Artisan cheese is an expression of the maker and the terroir of a region. It often references the history of cheese continuing that tradition and/or making it new. Just like art. You have to handle it with care and respect. Cheese is art. True story.
My job as an art instructor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago involved a lot of things. Too many to list here, but one was convincing the students that the museum, as physical and cranky as it is, was more valuable than Google. Go ahead, Google Mark Rothko, Untitled (Purple, White and Red), 1953, and then go sit in front of it. Which one is better? I cried. True Story. You could read The Cheese Primer, by Steven Jenkins from cover to cover and a hundred other books on the subject of cheese, but you wouldn’t understand the sensuality of eating a fine piece of cheese. You have to eat the cheese! You must. Eat it while traveling where it is made, eat it at home with your kids, your roommates and the person on the other side of the bed. And the worst case scenario is to eat it with a stranger like me.
Only now does it seem that folks here in the US are intentionally gravitating toward cheesemongering as a career. Those who have actually done so are an exception. Mostly, it happens by chance and a means to something else. I’ve just given you the Cliff Notes version of my work history. I left out all the mind numbing desk jobs I’ve had. There are hundreds of cheesemongers out there that have intriguing work histories as well. I’ve worked with cheesemongers that in prior lives were attorneys, landscape architects, special education teachers, composers and engineers–and those are just the careers I can remember off the top of my head. Believe me, it makes for a lively work environment full of people contributing to the unbelievably rewarding task of caring for cheese. The American Cheese Society is attempting to establish a Certified Cheese Professional Certification. The exam will attempt to define and legitimize the unique knowledge and skill set for the cheese professionals, and they hope it will help set the standards that preserve the profession’s integrity. The exam is not without some minor controversy among cheese professionals (ahem), and I’m betting that over the course of some years it will achieve the legitimacy it is hoping for. I’m not going to sit for the exam on this round. True story.
My point is that my job as a cheesemonger isn’t the summer transient job I took while I was on track to my career. It presented itself to me, and I took it! I work with amazing people that do have other plans and some will become CEOs and these will be their glory days. My career track as a gift wrapper, an artist and professor took me on track to be a cheesemonger. It is the beloved job I have, and it took other jobs to give me the skills to be good at this one. It is the job I get to leave every day, dead tired and inspired by that I get to return to this same very job tomorrow. I’m gonna gloat, and why shouldn’t I? My job requires me to eat cheese and drink wine. I’m in mid-life with not one regret. True Story.