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.2 In 2005 the United States produced over nine billion pounds of cheese. Clearly Americans love cheese.3
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.
Of course it’s ridiculous to generalize about “Americans.” But I find there’s a default reaction—amusement—among most people when I tell them what I do, a fact confirmed by my experience in one of the most diverse civic gathering places of all: the jury room. The reason for their bemusement is simple: Most Americans think cheese is funny.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the cheese. I’d like to think it loves me back. But there is a certain absurdity associated with my job that I’ve become immune to noticing, and it’s helpful to get an outside view every once in a while. Cheese is funny to almost everyone except dairy farmers and cheesemakers. I have a great job: full benefits, worker-run store, decent pay for eating cheese all day long. I’m not complaining in the least. But when I say that cheese is funny, I mean funny in the sense that when I tell strangers what I do, as in the jury room, they tend to laugh.
Fancy cheese might be funny to most Americans, even if the individual ingredients aren’t amusing. Most cheese is made of milk, starter culture, rennet, and salt, and I’ll go into great detail about all these ingredients. But where’s the amusement here? Nothing funny about milk. In fact, before chemical companies began messing around with the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), milk was looked upon as a symbol of purity. Starter culture determines certain chemical reactions in the cheesemaking process and the overall finished flavor, but starter culture is often used in breadmaking and no one laughs at bakers. Rennet, traditionally an enzyme from the lining of a calf’s stomach, used to coagulate milk, is not in any way funny. Gross yes, funny no. Salt? I can’t think of a less amusing basic ingredient.
As a whole, only fancy cheeses get mocked. Nobody, except elitist 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 pizzas and nachos. They are useful.
But moldy, stinky, fragile little cheeses? People love to come to our store and laugh at them. I had to make a special sign for the Le Farto brand of French Reblochon because I got tired of hearing the same attempts at humor every day. The sign starts off by saying, ok, first off, we don’t wanna hear your “cutting the cheese” jokes. People, people! I assure you. I beg you. Your cheesemonger has heard that fart joke you are contemplating. Just move on.
The need customers have to make fun of the Le Farto puts a visible strain on their faces. I get to observe people physically trying to hold their comments to themselves, nudging their friends, pointing at the sign. The sign also gives us cheese workers free rein, if someone actually does attempt a fart joke, to just stare back at them and say, “Excuse me sir”—and 90 percent of the time it is a sir—“did you read the sign?” Shaming customers is not something one is supposed to do in retail work, which makes the technique all the more effective.
Of course, the occasional actually-French-from-France customers often say, “I do not und-air-stand. What iz zee meaning of zis sign?” And I have to explain what fart means. This can be quite embarrassing, depending on how much English they speak. Pantomiming a fart and a bad smell to a customer would probably get me fired at another job, but when the non-cheese-workers at our store see stuff like that they just shrug.