I love the cheese department at my local worker-owned grocery store, Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. It's well stocked with a wide variety of cheese, including everything from the fanciest of handmade goat's cheese to your basic block of orange cheddar. Many of the cheeses are accompanied by hand-lettered signs that offer helpful and often humorous information, and they always have an interesting choice on their sample table.
So when I saw that ex-punk/anarchist (well, not so sure about the ex part) Gordon Edgar had a memoir out about his experiences as the cheesemonger for Rainbow, I knew it would be, if anything, an interesting read. Turns out it's that and so much more. Read on for my review.
First, while this book is firmly based in San Francisco in many ways, I want to state that it is not just for citizens and fans of SF, nor is it only for those who shop at Rainbow, or have decidedly left of center politics. It's not just for punk rockers or anarchists or people in the cheese making business either. While this book's terroir (inside joke directed towards the author) is pure SF, it's is not exclusively SF and I hope that anyone who is interested in cheese, food politics, farming, working in retail or hearing a good story will pick this up. It will not disappoint.
It is also important to note that this is not a cheese primer, although I learned quite a lot about cheese and how to select cheese from this book and more than anything, that's my biggest takeaway here. Mr. Edgar offers wise advice to first understand where your tastes are and then know where you want to go. Do you like a simple, not too challenging brie and are ready to take it up a notch? Or are you a lover of a good stinky washed-rind cheese but have to bring something with less funk to the office party? Maybe you're on a first date or want to impress a client. Either way, throughout the book Mr. Edgar gives great advice on how to navigate a cheese counter and discover an enormous world of tastes, smells and textures. He ends each chapter with two cheese recommendations, including a few less pricier alternates.
Not unexpectedly, Mr. Edgar doesn't shy away from the complexity of being a pretty radical political guy selling fancy cheeses in a worker-owned co-operative that's located in a working class/homeless encampment-surrounded neighborhood which in turn is located in a liberal city that's experiencing a huge real estate boom. Through this memoir, we not only begin to know its author, we also begin to understand what a 40 pound block of commodity cheddar is and why it exists. We catch a glimpse into the immense challenges of a small dairy in American in the beginning of the 21st century and why there's so much fuss about raw milk cheese. Or how a cheese buyer learns to maneuver the clutches of ambitious sales reps and crazy (or just very high-maintenance) customers.
Despite his tough, anarchist/punk exterior, Mr. Edgar is very sensitive to the subtleties and complexities and interdependencies of his trade, and he handles them very well, with a surprising amount of patience and humor, all the while remaining loyal to his basic political beliefs. There are many good stories here that are not just about selling cheese or being on the fringe of modern American society. It is clear that while Mr. Edgar accidentally stumbled into his role as cheesemonger fifteen years ago, he is today a passionate and unpretentious advocate for the ripe, tangy, creamy, funky way of life. He repeatedly says throughout this book that he has the best job in the world. In the end, this is a love story and a good one at that.
• Get the book: Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge by Gordon Edgar $11.83 from Amazon or $8.98 from Powell's.
Related: Expert Interview: Gordon Edgar: Cheese Buyer for Rainbow Grocery
(Images: Myleen Hollero)