Someone significant once told me that, “nobody has ever heard of a cheesemonger with a PhD.”
This was not so long ago, when I was frantically trying to finish up my doctoral dissertation so that I could get the heck out of grad school. The comment was a response to the suggestion that, rather than applying for tenure-track faculty positions at elite universities, I should instead choose to work as a cheesemonger while pursuing my writing and editing on my own time.
Why is it that working as a cheesemonger might be considered a substandard profession for someone with an education? After all, working as a cheesemonger does not merely mean selling products to people–although that is one part of the job.
A cheesemonger is a storyteller.
Every cheese has a story – or at least every cheese worth eating has a story. There is history involved with selling cheese, and there are traditions and culture.
Working with cheese means having knowledge not only of history and culture and language and literature, but also of chemistry, biology, and math. You could even say there is some physics involved, if you take for example the traditional method for cracking a wheel of parmesan.
A cheesemonger is a storyteller, and a gatekeeper of the secrets of gastronomy.
What cheese goes well with this salami? What cheese is best suited for this pasta dish, this party platter, this dessert? With which wine should I pair which cheese, or which cheese is the best pairing for this wine, this beer, this aperitif. Does it go well with tomatillos? Or pineapple? And even: is it gluten-free, vegetarian, suitable for those who are lactose intolerant?
Not only are there hundreds of thousands of cheeses in the world, many of them made from recipes that are themselves thousands of years old, but there are also thousands of possibilities for enjoying cheeses, and countless pages of literature that could be read about each one.
Certainly, there are countless pages of literature that are yet to be written about cheese.
A cheesemonger is a storyteller, and a pursuer of perfection.
Perfectly preparing and caring for cheeses, keeping them happy and healthy, merchandising them in order to best portray their beauty: the better all of these tasks are completed, the more divine the experience one has with his or her cheese.
Or how about overcoming the challenge of approaching a difficult cheese – one that weighs 50 pounds, or 80 pounds, or 175? Is this five-year-old gouda going to break 3 wires today just so that I can open the wheel? (Most definitely.) Will I be able to cut a perfect wedge in so doing? Or, how fast can I break down this 80-pound wheel of Reggiano?
Chances are pretty good that not only is your cheesemonger a badass when it comes to hoisting, hefting, and breaking down really heavy, greasy wheels of cheese, but that he or she can also sing the praises of a favorite cheese with the same grace and gusto as any ordinary poet.
Working with cheese means telling the story of each cheese: the story of how it is made, where it comes from, how to best care for it, and how it is meant to be consumed.
Being a cheesemonger also means breaking down traditions by pushing the boundaries of how we are supposed to enjoy certain cheeses or their pairings, and finding ever-new ways of simultaneously challenging and pleasing our taste buds.
So maybe nobody has ever heard of a cheesemonger with a PhD, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done – or that it shouldn’t.
And frankly, I take it as a challenge.