November 25th, 2002


Recurring cheese dreams

I’m a little cheese-obsessed these days. Yes, even more than usual. It’s that Thanksgiving food-buying frenzy and my most stressful week of the year.

Strangely, I haven’t had my yearly cheese nightmare. While cheese is a more forgiving perishable than produce or other refrigerated foods, its short life span* can be the source of an incredible amount of tension for those of us who buy it for a living. I rarely remember my dreams but for the last few years I’ve had a recurring one this time of year. I’m in the walk-in cooler but it’s warehouse-sized. Bries, blues, cheddars, Swisses and fluffy goat cheeses are stacked floor to ceiling on shelves, milk crates and every available space. And they’re rotting before my eyes. Mites are turning the Gruyere into nasty tan dust. Orange, stinky, washed rinds are liquefying and dripping onto the cheese below. White bloomy rinds are yellowing, browning and spotting. All the beautiful cheese is going concave: hardening or disintegrating and I can’t do anything about it. I won’t even describe the incredible amount maggot-action going on.

Meanwhile all the butch delivery drivers continue to wheel hand-trucks, loaded over their heads with cheese, into the cooler, yelling out "Where do you want this?" while I try to stop the cross-contamination of decaying cheese and make space for more.

But I guess this year has been somewhat more organized because I haven’t woken up hysterical feeling the need to walk down to the store and check on my firm, milky friends. Maybe before x-mas when my next air orders come in. It’s always worse the week before the holiday when I’m surrounded by more cheese than fits in the cooler and the buying pace hasn’t picked up yet. I swear I can hear it aging over the rumble of the cooler fans.

It is really strange to have so much esoteric cheese knowledge sometimes. Comrade cheese workers ilipodscrill, Anarqueso, and I went out to a fancy dinner a couple of weeks ago to the SF restaurant with an ocean theme. Behind the bar are faux fish scales. The light fixtures are jellyfish that seem to ungulate. The bathroom is covered in iridescent mosaics. The food was wonderful with the exception of their sad attempts to use cheese.

I ordered a salad that claimed to have a rare, illegal and expensive cheese drizzled on it. When it arrived, they had just slapped it on a baguette next to the salad and grilled it for a minute. If they were going to do that they may as well have just gone down to Safeway and bought whatever was on sale. Which would have been fine, btw, if the salad hadn’t cost about what I make in an hour. When I talked to our mutual distributor the next day I told her she should refuse to sell the restaurant the cheese in question until they learn how to serve it correctly. And don’t even get me started on their cheese course. Three out of five cheese names misspelled! If you’re going to charge me $5 an ounce for cheese I expect correct punctuation.

The mega-chain natural foods store in our area recently had a hugely expensive full page ad just for cheese in the weekly SF Chronicle food section. Included in this was a large picture of their regional cheese buyer looking self-important while pondering the nature of cheese. His portrait shows a man who doesn’t wake in the middle of the night worrying about fetas going rancid.

I’d love to think about how that type of ad campaign would go over where I work. "I propose we spend $20,000 to put a picture of me in the food section. Can I get a second?" I don’t know though. Maybe there is a market out there that would be spurred to buy their cheese by the snarling face of a cranky, punk rock cheese monger. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep those nightmares at bay. . .

*depending on the cheese of course.