Good food writing is a lot like erotica — you can imagine having it without actually getting sweaty. Eventually, however, all thoughts lead to the bedroom — or in this case, the kitchen — and that cognitive leap into action can get messy.
In his debut book Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, Gordon Edgar unwraps the world of artisanal cheese for the uninitiated consumer and provides a primer on the elements of cheese making from hormone-free milk to stomach-curdling microbes. In the process, he reveals a culinary world composed of back-to-the-land types, activists and traditional dairy farmers who are slowly chewing their way through the food movement.
Cheesemonger offers a slice of life rarely seen in nonfiction: a frontline employee entrusted to make decisions on his own behalf and for the benefit of his customers. In a breezy, occasionally philosophical account, Edgar discusses his maturation from disaffected punk rock activist into a full-blown cheese aficionado. He delivers a behind-the-counter look at food-obsessed San Francisco, where he presides over matters relating to life, politics and cheese at the Rainbow Grocery, a worker-owned food cooperative.
MNN: Given that you work in retail, were you afraid of recrimination from customers or co-workers?
Edgar Gordon: I did change some of the details of customer descriptions for that reason — especially among some of the more unstable customers. I didn’t want to set them off.
So what is the connection between punk rock and cheese?
It’s funny how the amount of punk rockers from the '80s are working in food now. We have a lot people working in Rainbow who played in bands in the '80s. We have young punk rockers come into the store looking at these old guys and old women and not realize they were in bands they’ve probably listened to. In terms of cheese and punk rock, that was more my personal happenstance. I don’t know of too many other punk rock cheese workers.
Punk rock has a DIY ethic. Are there any similarities to cheese makers?
Clearly, there’s a lot more precision needed with cheese making than with punk rock. Among cheese workers, there’s a similar kind of feeling that I experienced in the punk movement, of "come check out my cheese and sleep on my couch."
If Green Day were a cheese, what kind of cheese would be they be?
Well, it would a popular cheese, that’s for sure. Even though they are older now, I still of think of them as young. I think them as a young Asiago-Presato kind of fun. They’ve matured into an Asiago with experience and age.
Is there a way for cheese to be tied to local food movements?
Supporting a local small-scale farmer is progressive politics. Anytime you do that, you’re stabilizing local economies. That’s a good thing. Or even buying cheese made in the United States, which in some ways is local, since for so many years it was dominated by European imports, which come from much further away.
Are there any illusions about food and social justice?
I have my issues with the limitation with consumerist politics. The amount of locavores who purchase their groceries at huge national chains is kind of appalling to me. But the thing about food is that it connects urban with rural people. I think a lot of what goes on in the United States divides people. Food, in the way its produced and sold, has the potential to unite people.
Lots of people have free-range fantasies about changing their lifestyle. Are there opportunities in cheese production?
Being in San Francisco, where you have a choice of cheese produced anyplace in the world is very different from a lot of places. There’s plenty of opportunity for being the local producer of some type of cheese. If you’re the first person at a local farmers market, people will love you. You’re going to be a community hero.