“I think the term 'activist' as an identity really needs to be destroyed,” says Gordon Edgar, who has a lively and extensive history of activism himself. Edgar is a longtime cheese buyer and handler at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery store. He is also a popular cheese blogger, and his smart, funny, and sharply analytical memoir Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge has recently been published by Chelsea Green.

Edgar and I are discussing the different strains of “snob culture” that meet at the famed worker-owned co-operative’s cheese counter. Rude sales reps aiming to intimidate cross paths with pretentious foodies spouting jargon they don’t understand, but neither is any more malignant to leftist movements than sneering militant activists who look down on the less-enlightened consumer and are unable to discuss their politics without patronizing.

“[Activist as an identity] sets you apart from the people you should be talking to, as if there are ‘activists’ and ‘non-activists’ and the activists are somehow more evolved. A lot of people think ‘oh, Rainbow Grocery, it’s going to be this ultra-political place.’ It is and it isn’t. Workers running their own business is a radical thing, but day-to-day you have to be real. You have to be able to talk to the person who comes up to the counter who hasn’t studied the locavore movement. You have to be able to have a conversation and explain why we sell the things we do without sounding like we’re judging someone because they haven’t already come to the same decision.”

Rainbow Grocery is a survivor of San Francisco’s 1970s People’s Food System, a network of food justice and environmentally oriented collectives and co-opertives that was sadly destroyed, as so many ambitious leftist projects are, by sectarian squabbling and power struggles. It is now a part of the emerging US Federation of Worker Co-operatives.

Edgar’s tenure at the co-operative began, as great careers often do, as a plucky young punk bluffing his way through an interview, waxing mendacious about his passion for the raw and rennet-less. Edgar, a veteran of various political collectives, was tired of cleaning buses for hippies and eager to take a crack at earning a living as part of one of the most democratic workplaces of Rainbow’s size. The cheese position just happened to be open.

His memoir details the legitimate, deepening dairy romance that commenced once hired, and how he came to earn the title Cheesemonger. (Hint: It involves graphically gruesome cheese-related injury. The cheese game is not for the faint of heart.) Edgar now sits on the board of the California Artisan Cheese guild, has judged many cheese competitions, given many conference talks, and is rightfully seen as an expert in his field. 

Edgar’s field encompasses not only choosing which Gruyere to stock and recommend to customers, but visiting the farms where the cheeses are produced. As Rainbow and its patrons have a Venn diagram of ethical, ecological and commercial concerns about their cheese, Edgar has by necessity become quite knowledgeable about the good, bad and stinky sides of dairy farming, as well as the increasing structural challenges small farmers face in the age of government-subsidized big agribusiness.

“I see myself as being kind of a translator between urban and rural life,” Edgar says. “A lot of [smaller farmers’] business is about staying in business, just to make a living. They don’t necessarily understand why someone from the city is asking these really specific and not very on-point questions like, ‘What is the ratio of grass to grain in your feed?’ Urban people have these little pinpricks of information about rural life, and that’s why it often comes across as absurd to dairy farmers, because it’s like, ‘Boy, you don’t know anything about my work life and you want to grill me on this one little specific point about the process?’ And then the urban audience comes in and asks why all this cheese isn’t organic and I have to explain how much extra more it would cost a goat cheesemaker to go organic in a place where goats can’t graze all year round.”

The symbiotic, tension-fraught relationship between urban and rural life is a theme explored throughout Cheesemonger, a work that Edgar hopes will contribute toward increased mutual understanding and respect. “If you cant speak to people who work hard for a living, who aren’t trying to get over on anyone but are just trying to make a decent living — if leftists can’t talk to those people, I don’t know what we’re doing,” Edgar says. “A lot of the reason why I like working at Rainbow is because I like people. I’m not one of those people who are like, ‘People are so f**ked up,’ and honestly, I don’t think you can really be on the left and feel that way. You have to believe in the people at some level.”

ALSO ON MNN: Q&A with the author

Additional photo of Edgar courtesy Chelsea Green.