Edible Radio’s Kate Manchester talks to Gordon Edgar, the cheesemonger at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative whose first book has just been published.
Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, is the story of Edgar, a former volunteer at Epicenter Zone, the not-for-profit punk community center in the Mission district, who lucks his way into the cheese buyer position at Rainbow Grocery. Taking over a cheese counter full of industrial jacks, cheddars and bries, he slowly transforms a once-pedestrian assortment into a world-class fromagerie.
Under the premise that punk rock made him a cheesemonger, the book is a lively inside look at the world of not-so-honest cheese pushers and sales reps, including the time he throws a pretentious New York cheese importer out of Rainbow Grocery with a Cali-inspired “Dude, shut up and get the !@#$ out of our store.”
More travelog than cheese review, he travels to regional dairies for an intimate look at the artisan cheese movement. At one farm he’s excited to see cows eating their way through spring grasses, and bemoans the fact that seasonal cheeses are a dying breed, a victim of large-scale production and international free trade.
But back at the store, more customers are demanding to know where animals “grazed” before making a selection (thanks to books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and Edgar strives to feature dairy farmers who can supply real numbers (forage vs. feedlot) when they use the terms pasture-based or grass-fed.
Unfortunately the USDA has no standardized definition of foraging and he predicts that the term will ultimately be meaningless, citing the cynical dairy in-joke regarding access to pasture: “Yeah, they walk ’em through the field on the way to the slaughterhouse.” Or as Alice Beetz, program specialist from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, says: “Think of milk as a means of marketing the forage.”
In later chapters, Edgar dips into “The Milk of Human Neurosis” and sharpens his activist edge with a look a “Punk Subculture and Reagan Cheese.” In “Terroir, Trucking, and Knowing Your Place,” he ponders the American Cheese Society’s use of the term terroir, slyly noting that the United States has no real land-based tradition, especially considering that our biggest contribution to the world of dairy is American Cheese.
Each chapter of Life on the Wedge ends with a couple of cheese profiles, which are more like in-depth bios than serious tasting notes, but the real attraction to this book is that Edgar takes no prisoners in his search for the truth in cheese and we all eat better for it.