Curving Out in a New Direction: The Cheese of Choice Coalition
"What is curious is that while my elders see 'back' as someplace that progress has allowed them to escape from- the wrong end of a linear trajectory- I imagine my life as looping and relooping, circling back to pick up something that we have forgotten, something that we desperately need for our health and happiness, something precious we stoop down to cradle and carry along with us, as we curve out in a new direction."
These words come from Gary Paul Nabhan, famed naturalist, professor, and author. I could try till the cows come home (bovine pun intended) and yet would still fall far short of the poetic splendor, the verity, caged in this single sentence. That is despite the fact the spirit of the words so perfectly describe my constitution that it may as well have bellowed from my soul.
Progress and regress are notions I think ill-defined. Superficially they suggest temporality alone but just below the surface lurks an insidious assessment of value. Progress, modernity, futurity are all conflated as good; regress, tradition, history umbrella’d as, in Nabhan’s words, “the wrong end of a linear trajectory.” But I, like Nabhan, believe that in this equation something important, nay something fundamental, gets lost in the midst of supposed backwardness. And I, again like Nabhan, see my life as a circle in search of something that in the mad rush to futurity we have forgotten. Pleasure and patience, good friends and good food, healthy bodies and communities and environments, all left behind as we hopped in our cars, traversed the fast food window, and made our way down the expansive concrete highway towards that false horizon of progress.
These very sentiments drew me as a young man to the study of History and English Literature so that I might live with and learn from those that came before us. They urged me to study abroad in Italy, and later, to return to that boot-shaped cradle of history to volunteer my labor on organic farms. Like a siren song they beckoned me to a graduate program where I studied traditional food and foodways and they compelled me to compliment my academic studies with work at a famed fromagerie surrounded by a veritable mountain of cheese and a brimming cornucopia of old-world provisions. These same sentiments lured me across the great expanse of America in search of our own culinary heritage. And after all that, they drew me here to Oldways where I feel I’ve finally found a home. (As an aside: The Oldways mottoes – “Health through Heritage,” “Let the Oldways be your guide” – might as well be tattooed across my chest if not for the fact that in such an outright act of corporal transgression my conservative, mid-western, father would positively disown me.)
I am the program manager of the Cheese of Choice Coalition (CCC) blessed with the opportunity to support and defend traditional, artisan, raw-milk (in a word high-quality) cheese. We need it now perhaps more so than ever, as regulatory hot waters threaten to sever irreparably a legacy of traditional cheesemaking that threads America to the old world and deliciously links modernity with the past.
As program manager of a newly-revitalized program, I am presented with the daunting task of simultaneously venturing out towards uncharted territory and yet somehow, doing so with gigantic shoes to fill. Fortunately my steps are buttressed not only by an unbridled enthusiasm for the charge but, more importantly, by the supportive hands of veritable giants in the food community. Many of these individuals I have long idolized. And, as of the CCC’s coming out party at the American Cheese Society (ACS) conference in Sacramento last week, many I now have the distinct and humbling honor of calling friends.
Glancing around a metaphorical banquet table (a table that, I am blessed, was frequently literal at the conference) are my companions on the Advisory Committee of the Cheese of Choice Coalition. To my left sits the juggernaut in charge of the entire Whole Foods Market cheese program, Cathy Strange. Unlikely to admit it, through 388 specialty cheese kiosks and an insatiable and passionate work ethic, Cathy has arguably done more to support artisan cheese in the last two decades than anybody else in America. Next to her sits her old friend Ruth Flore, a former president of the American Cheese Society and long-time evangelist of specialty cheese. The scientists congregate on the other side of the breadbasket, Catherine Donnelly, Rachel Dutton, and Heather Paxson discussing how traditional cheesemakers ward off Listeria, or the surprising microbiological makeup of cheese rinds, or the disparate motivations of artisan cheese producers, each in their turn.
Will Studd has joined us in between jaunts filming cheesemakers around the globe and his crusade for traditional cheese in the land down under. He passes the cheese plate to Sue Conley, co-founder of the west-coast institution that is Cowgirl Creamery, who chats enthusiastically about the similarities between her own Wagon Wheel and French Comte with the esteemed Dominique Delugeau of the Cheese Importers Association of America. The open seat beside me belongs to Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of the Ann Arbor mecca Zingerman’s Deli, who is returning from giving a heartfelt acceptance speech for 2014 Lifetime of Achievement Award presented by the ACS. Before eating I take a deep and thankful breath, saying my own form of grace, truly honored to be even in the same room as these champions of traditional cheese yet alone to have seat at the table.
In conversation, Ari has a penchant for quoting 19th and early 20th century anarchists whose writing has helped to mold his beliefs around the freedom of choice and the spirit of community and conviviality. Those sentiments too are embedded in the very name our program—the Cheese of Choice Coalition. But on this day, Ari chose to quote a former employee of his, and now well-respected author, Michael Paterniti. “What was so crazy about believing in purity—and then going out to find it.” We at the CCC, at Oldways, believe in purity as well, but take that charge one step beyond. We not only seek to find it, we seek to stand as sentinels, to do our part to protect it. It is that mission that has drawn me here and drives me forward. And like Nabhan, with one eye looking backwards and the other ahead, we—myself and Oldways alike—stoop down to cradle something precious and curve out in a new direction.
If you would like to learn more or to help fight for your cheese of choice, I encourage you to check out the CCC website. You can sign up for our newsletter or become a enthusiast member and receive the complimentary “Get on Board” t-shirt that was all the rage at the ACS conference.