Confessions of a Cheesemonger: What Our Relationship to Cheese Says About American Culture
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I was called to jury duty last year. When we walked into the courtroom for selection, each potential juror had to inform the court of his or her name, neighborhood, and occupation. When my turn came (and, like a punch line, I was last), I said, "My name is Gordon Edgar, I live in Duboce Triangle, and I work at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative as a cheesemonger."
Everyone laughed. The lawyers laughed. The potential jurors laughed. Even the judge and the court reporter snickered. Only the 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 spoke Cantonese. Her lawyer recovered, and then asked me, in open court, for any cheese tips I might have.
Like everyone else ever in the history of jury duty, I was frustrated by the glacially slow jury selection process. We were in our second day, and since the plaintiff's attorney was getting paid quite well, I didn't feel like sharing my professional knowledge for free. "Don't get me started," I replied curtly.
After we were chosen, the remaining jurors asked if I could bring cheese to the deliberations. I brought chunked pieces of four-year-aged Gouda, Bravo Silver Mountain Cheddar, and Italian Piave in clear, compostable, sixteen-ounce bulk containers for the lunch breaks. I brought doughnuts to our two-hour deliberation because it started at eight thirty in the morning.
I often get asked my opinion on the relationship Americans have with cheese, usually by a customer who has a pet theory about how society works. Often these theories are pessimistic: Processed American Cheese symbolizes soulless suburban white-bread culture; commodity block Cheddars are emblems of Americans' disconnect from their cultural roots; the relatively small number of choices we have (outside of a few urban centers) when buying cheese reveals how much control factory farming has over the food supply. Jury duty provided a good amount of time to think about this question: How do Americans relate to cheese?
When conversing with me over the counter, customers often declare that Americans, excluding themselves of course, don't appreciate cheese. Yet every American, on average, consumes over thirty 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. In 2005 the United States produced over nine billion pounds of cheese. Clearly Americans love cheese.
An oft-spoken critique is that Americans don't appreciate "good" cheese. If we assume that "good cheese" means cheese in the $10-a-pound and up range, we have to remember that, in the more fancy-cheese-friendly nations, cheese is much cheaper. In Berlin I once visited a department store with a huge cheese selection. There was no American-made cheese there, but the same European cheeses we carry in San Francisco were about a third of the price. And this was a very high-end place. Ten thousand fewer travel miles, and a smaller number of people with their hands in the pie, make a difference in pricing, to be sure.
Holding a huge bag of cheese and trying to find an exit, I stumbled across the US food section. Imported Pop-Tarts were about $10 a box. Small plastic jars of Skippy peanut butter were even more. When American foodies mock other Americans for not appreciating fine cheese, they should remember that the US equivalent to French Brie is a forty-pound block of commodity Cheddar.