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Grass, Farmland, and Where My Cheese Love Story Begins

Iwascalledtojurydutylastyear.Whenwewalkedintothecourtroom for selection, each potential juror had to inform the court of hisorhername,neighborhood,andoccupation.Whenmyturncame (and,likeapunchline,Iwaslast),Isaid,“MynameisGordonEdgar, IliveinDuboceTriangle,andIworkatRainbowGroceryCooperative asacheesemonger.” Everyone laughed. The lawyers laughed. The potential jurors laughed.Eventhejudgeandthecourtreportersnickered.Onlythe eighty-five-year-old plaintiff, who had been run over by the defendant, didn’t crack a smile—but she had an excuse since she only spokeCantonese.Herlawyerrecovered,andthenaskedme,inopen court,foranycheesetipsImighthave. Likeeveryoneelseeverinthehistoryofjuryduty,Iwasfrustrated bytheglaciallyslowjuryselectionprocess.Wewereinoursecond day,andsincetheplaintiff’sattorneywasgettingpaidquitewell,I didn’tfeellikesharingmyprofessionalknowledgeforfree.“Don’tget mestarted,”Irepliedcurtly. Afterwewerechosen,theremainingjurorsaskedifIcouldbring cheese to the deliberations. I brought chunked pieces of four-yearaged Gouda, Bravo Silver Mountain Cheddar, and Italian Piave in

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clear, compostable, sixteen-ounce bulk containers for the lunch breaks.Ibroughtdoughnutstoourtwo-hourdeliberationbecauseit startedateightthirtyinthemorning. IoftengetaskedmyopinionontherelationshipAmericanshave with cheese, usually by a customer who has a pet theory about how society works. Often these theories are pessimistic: Processed AmericanCheesesymbolizessoullesssuburbanwhite-breadculture; commodity block Cheddars are emblems of Americans’ disconnect fromtheirculturalroots;therelativelysmallnumberofchoiceswe have (outside of a few urban centers) when buying cheese reveals how much control factory farming has over the food supply. Jury dutyprovidedagoodamountoftimetothinkaboutthisquestion: HowdoAmericansrelatetocheese? When conversing with me over the counter, customers often declarethatAmericans,excludingthemselvesofcourse,don’tappreciatecheese.YeteveryAmerican,onaverage,consumesoverthirty pounds of cheese a year. That’s less than half what the people of Greece, the world leader, consume, according to the International Dairy Association. Still, it’s good enough for seventh place in the world.2In2005theUnitedStatesproducedoverninebillionpounds ofcheese.ClearlyAmericanslovecheese.3 Anoft-spokencritiqueisthatAmericansdon’tappreciate“good” cheese. If we assume that “good cheese” means cheese in the $10-a-poundanduprange,wehavetorememberthat,inthemore fancy-cheese-friendly nations, cheese is much cheaper. In Berlin I oncevisitedadepartmentstorewithahugecheeseselection.There wasnoAmerican-madecheesethere,butthesameEuropeancheeses wecarryinSanFranciscowereaboutathirdoftheprice.Andthis wasaveryhigh-endplace.Tenthousandfewertravelmiles,anda smallernumberofpeoplewiththeirhandsinthepie,makeadifferenceinpricing,tobesure. Holdingahugebagofcheeseandtryingtofindanexit,Istumbled acrosstheUSfoodsection.ImportedPop-Tartswereabout$10abox. Small plastic jars of Skippy peanut butter were even more. When

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American foodies mock other Americans for not appreciating fine cheese,theyshouldrememberthattheUSequivalenttoFrenchBrie isaforty-poundblockofcommodityCheddar. Ofcourseit’sridiculoustogeneralizeabout“Americans.”ButIfind there’sadefaultreaction—amusement—amongmostpeoplewhenI tellthemwhatIdo,afactconfirmedbymyexperienceinoneofthe mostdiversecivicgatheringplacesofall:thejuryroom.Thereason fortheirbemusementissimple:MostAmericansthinkcheeseisfunny. Don’tgetmewrong.Ilovethecheese.I’dliketothinkitlovesme back.ButthereisacertainabsurdityassociatedwithmyjobthatI’ve becomeimmunetonoticing,andit’shelpfultogetanoutsideview every once in a while. Cheese is funny to almost everyone except dairy farmers and cheesemakers. I have a great job: full benefits, worker-runstore,decentpayforeatingcheesealldaylong.I’mnot complainingintheleast.ButwhenIsaythatcheeseisfunny,Imean funnyinthesensethatwhenItellstrangerswhatIdo,asinthejury room,theytendtolaugh. FancycheesemightbefunnytomostAmericans,eveniftheindividualingredientsaren’tamusing.Mostcheeseismadeofmilk,starter culture,rennet,andsalt,andI’llgointogreatdetailaboutallthese ingredients.Butwhere’stheamusementhere?Nothingfunnyabout milk.Infact,beforechemicalcompaniesbeganmessingaroundwith therecombinantbovinegrowthhormone(rBGH),milkwaslooked uponasasymbolofpurity.Starterculturedeterminescertainchemical reactions in the cheesemaking process and the overall finished flavor,butstartercultureisoftenusedinbreadmakingandnoone laughsatbakers.Rennet,traditionallyanenzymefromtheliningofa calf’sstomach,usedtocoagulatemilk,isnotinanywayfunny.Gross yes,funnyno.Salt?Ican’tthinkofalessamusingbasicingredient. Asawhole,onlyfancycheesesgetmocked.Nobody,exceptelitist foodies, really laughs at processed cheese. Forty-pound blocks of commodity Jack, Cheddar, and mozzarella demand a grudging respect because they are honest and relatively cheap. They go on pizzasandnachos.Theyareuseful.

Grass, Farmland, and Where My Cheese Love Story Begins • 27

Butmoldy,stinky,fragilelittlecheeses?Peoplelovetocometoour storeandlaughatthem.IhadtomakeaspecialsignfortheLeFarto brandofFrenchReblochonbecauseIgottiredofhearingthesame attemptsathumoreveryday.Thesignstartsoffbysaying, ok, first off, wE Don’t wanna hEar your “cutting thE chEEsE” jokEs.People,people! Iassureyou.Ibegyou.Yourcheesemongerhasheardthatfartjoke youarecontemplating.Justmoveon. TheneedcustomershavetomakefunoftheLeFartoputsavisiblestrainontheirfaces.Igettoobservepeoplephysicallytryingto holdtheircommentstothemselves,nudgingtheirfriends,pointingat thesign.Thesignalsogivesuscheeseworkersfreerein,ifsomeone actuallydoesattemptafartjoke,tojuststarebackatthemandsay, “Excusemesir”—and90percentofthetimeitisasir—“didyouread thesign?”Shamingcustomersisnotsomethingoneissupposedto doinretailwork,whichmakesthetechniqueallthemoreeffective. Ofcourse,theoccasionalactually-French-from-Francecustomers oftensay,“Idonotund-air-stand.Whatizzeemeaningofzissign?” AndIhavetoexplainwhatfartmeans.Thiscanbequiteembarrassing,dependingonhowmuchEnglishtheyspeak.Pantomimingafart andabadsmelltoacustomerwouldprobablygetmefiredatanother job,butwhenthenon-cheese-workersatourstoreseestufflikethat theyjustshrug. There are things to laugh at, of course. Whenever people invest theirself-esteeminwhose-provolone-is-biggerbattlescitingspecific arcana,outsiderswillmock.Itdoesn’tmatterifwe’retalkingabout recordcollectors,D&Dwizards,orcheesefetishists.Iguessthequestionis,whydoIsometimesthinkofmyselfasanoutsider? Ihavespentmorethanfortyhoursaweekforwelloveradecade hangingoutwithcheesefolks.Ihavearguedwithcheesefolks,drunk with cheese folks, attended their weddings and funerals, been on panels with them, even slept with some of them. I have a cheese tattooforChrist’ssake.WhoamItryingtokid? Thecheesemongerlifestillstrikesmeasratherabsurd,andItryto

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keepanemotionaldistance,becausewhileIoncedebatedwhether or not the Paris General Strike of 1968 was a truly revolutionary moment,nowIdiscussthegoatsofPérigordandknow,againstmy will, that Mimolette—a French cow’s milk cheese, often aged until riddled with cheese mites and acquiring a caramel-sweet, sharp flavor—wasdeGaulle’sfavoritecheese.IfIknewwhatstudentleader DanielCohn-Bendit’sfavoritecheesewas,perhapsIcouldclaimIwas workingonaclearcontinuum.Idid,briefly,sellSlowFoodpioneer andMcDonald’sdismantlerJoséBové’scheesebeforehewenttojail. I’mjustnotsurethat’senough. I try to maintain this continuum. Since French cheese is ubiquitous,itseemsappropriatetolooktotheirrevolutionarymovements forinspiration.TheSituationists,aloosepoliticalgroupwhocreated muchoftherevolutionaryartinParis1968throughthereuseand captioningofeverydayimages,mightappreciatemyreuse,unaltered except for lamination, of a graphic I cut out of a trade magazine. I like to leave it on our table of cheese samples. It’s a picture of a goateed hipster from the mid-1990s who might be putting on his flannel shirt and going to see Nirvana after work. He wears latex glovesandiscaughtintheactofhappilydolingoutfood.Thecaption readsgEn xErs lovE samplEs.Ithinkit’shilarioustoremindpeoplethat theyarebeingmarketedto,butitisdoubtfulthattheSituationists wouldappreciatethattheimageisusedtosellcheese. Likeanagedcheese,thepathofmylifewasdeterminedbymany factors.Itwouldbeamistaketodiscussanylifeassimplytheproductofoneexperienceoraction.Certainlyoneevent,saychildhood traumainhumansormassivechangeinhumidityincheese,canhave a long-lasting effect. My love for cheese, however, went through a naturalmaturationprocess.                                                       

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