Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

There’s more to selling cheese than meets the eye

What selling cheese for two summers has taught me
Collegian File Photo

When I’m not drowning in readings by Thomas Paine and Toni Morrison, I devote most my free time to my job as a cheesemonger. Just as a fishmonger is trained in the art of handling and selling fish, I do the same with cheese and charcuterie. I wouldn’t consider myself an “expert” in cheese, but I do know much more about the subject than I did when I started and the bar was set so low that no knowledge was required. I fancied myself a “foodie,” but had no formal training in any culinary field beyond following rapper/chef Action Bronson step-by-step as he cooked risotto in his YouTube cooking series, “F*ck, That’s Delicious.” Despite my lack of technical knowledge, I did know one thing: I was not afraid to try something new. If it’s edible, I’m willing to try it. A voracious appetite to try every wacky and wonderful thing I could get my hands on led me to actively seek out the most authentic variations of Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican, Ethiopian and other regional cuisines.

One of my favorite places was the Cheese Shop of Salem, located 10 minutes away from my house. The dizzying selection of cheeses and cured meats from Europe and the United States made me feel equally fascinated and bewildered; it felt wrong that I would eat Vacherousse d’Argental and Dziugas by the wedge but be unable to pronounce their names correctly. I decided that if I wanted to be this learned food connoisseur, I should actually educate myself about the food I was eating. I walked into the shop shortly after I graduated from high school and asked Peter, the shop’s benevolent manager, for a job. He asked me if I was a “foodie,” to which I said yes. I told him how much I admired his shop, and in my head I had this nonsensical notion that I could help the shop revamp and improve its selection. Despite my ambitions, Peter had me start as a “cheeseback,” the lowest rung on the proverbial cheese shop ladder, but I knew my place. My work was relegated to completing menial tasks around the shop, but I was okay with this. I felt scared to go near the cheese, let alone handle it. Every time I picked up a wheel, I treated it as if it was a newborn baby. One of my only responsibilities as a cheeseback that allowed working directly with the cheese was to wrap wedges in plastic to be put in the display case. Although it may sound like a trivial task, it was without a doubt the most challenging aspect of my job. Be too gentle with the plastic and it would look wrinkled and unfit for display, be the slightest bit too aggressive and it would tear, forcing me to start all over again. It took me about a month of constant wrapping and unwrapping to feel like I could wrap anything with relative ease. I was practicing so frequently that I began to dream about wrapping cheese in plastic and paper.

What surprised me most about working at the shop was that I never stood around idling. The amount of detail required to run a small retail business is staggering. It was my first work experience where I didn’t ever find myself without a task to complete. Still, I felt intimidated by the cheese. The thought of a customer approaching me and asking for a recommendation terrified me. In response to this feeling, I began to think that cheese is something that’s unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and I was wasting my time worrying about how much I didn’t know.

What really got me to change my tune, however, was “The Devil Wears Prada.” I was working with Joe, the shop’s resident craftsman and meatmonger, and we were discussing the Cheesemonger Invitational – a national cheese mongering competition in which our shop’s lead monger, Kiri, annually competes. Joe was telling me about the passion these people have for cheese and he said, “You know that scene in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ where Meryl Streep humiliates Anne Hathaway because she doesn’t know the difference between blue and cerulean? It’s the same thing with the food we sell here. Cheese isn’t something to treat like a joke. It’s an industry that affects millions of people across the world.” He blessed me with this pep talk right as I started training to work with customers and actually sell cheese, and he provided me with the motivation that kept me excited to return to work each day.

This past summer, I devoted hours upon hours to studying the science and history of cheese so that I could feel confident when a customer asked me a question. Beyond this concrete knowledge, I realized how joyous people become around food. I’m a believer that taste is our most powerful sense. The right bite can conjure up the most potent form of nostalgia and leave the eater awash in memories of food shared with those they love. Being the person who has the chance to make people feel this way has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Cheesemongering may sound niche, but it taught me the immense value of making others happy, which is truly the most transferrable skill of all.

I wonder if I can put that on LinkedIn.

Jacob Abrams is a Collegian correspondent and can be reached at [email protected].

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    Harvey J KayeOct 10, 2018 at 11:05 am

    Nice piece – I sent you an email Jacob