This August 7-9, prepare yourself for a cheesy musical odyssey the likes of which you’ll be jazzed to hear about—culture: the word on cheese is partnering with Napa Valley winery Long Meadow Ranch to bring you Cheese Lands, your one-stop shop for cheesy treats at this year’s Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park! Take a peek at our main page for the full menu, and enjoy this inside look at working last year’s booth.
It’s 11 AM, August 8, 2014, and I’m sitting down at a picnic table in the middle of Golden Gate Park’s eerily deserted Polo Field. I can feel the sun trying to pierce through the overcast sky. Perfect for me, accustomed to the foggy summers of the Northern California coast; not so hot for the girl in the neon faux-fur boots and nothing much else, eagerly standing in line just beyond the entry gates. Today marks the beginning of Outside Lands, a veritable gem of a music festival. Everyone here has faith the fog will burn. Everyone here is down for a good time.
I’m working the register at Cheese Lands—brought to you by culture magazine and Napa Valley winery Long Meadow Ranch—and I have never arrived earlier to a festival in my life. Outside Lands, which I’ve attended a couple times before, is a Disneyland of good stages, great acts, and even better food, but it’s an epic poem getting inside. Parking, as culture cofounder and Cheese Lands manager Lassa Skinner put it, is “nonexistent.” Finding a spot is a near-miracle. (“Is it the first or second Friday of the month?” you ask yourself in a busy street, holding up traffic and trying to avoid the sweepers). But once you’re in, you’re in, and the rest is a beautiful experience.
Fate is on my side: I breeze through the box office. My vendor wristband’s VIP status allows me to skip past the line of brightly clad and shivering Millennials. And now I am spit out into this huge space with only a handful of people and an hour to go before the first artists take the stage. Every inch of grass will be swarming with people, so I soak up the calm and quiet for as long as I can.
Before I know it I find myself standing before the large, artisanal wooden letters spelling out “Cheese Lands.” The booth forms a little nook against the sea of people that flows to and from the main stages. Tall tables line a sidewall, and a waist-high wooden palisade carves out a space to mingle and munch in.
I wave at Lassa, who’s busily slicing through wheels and buckets and tubs of cheese with a handful of volunteer mongers. Lassa introduces me to the rectangular metal box filled with cash that will become my best bud. To my left I shake the hand of Tony, Lassa’s husband and overall genial gent. To my right is Patrick, a young Brit still in Uni having a great time touring the States. And then we’re off.
I had studied the cheese menu intently last night and on the drive up here, and I’m extremely grateful for all of the cheese knowledge I’d acquired from my time working for culture—there’s at least one cheese on every plate I know pretty well. In what would become my cheese litany for the weekend, literally sneaking into my dreams, I’d explain to whoever came my way, “We’ve got four cheese plates: a white wine pairing plate, a red wine pairing plate, a Truffle Lover’s plate, and a Cheesemonger’s Pick of five different cheeses.”
The curds and I become fast friends, and by the end of Outside Lands I could point them out and name them all: Marin French Petit Crème, Sartori Merlot BellaVitano, Vermont Creamery Bonne Bouche, Central Coast Creamery Ewenique, Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold, Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, Point Reyes Farmstead Toma, BelGioioso Truffle Burrata, and on and on.
The tide of festivalgoers ebbs and flows, but patterns begin to emerge. Seventy-five percent of people stand approximately eight feet away from the counter and the signs with the menu. They furrow their brows and converse in hushed tones, deliberating which plate to buy and wondering what the hell is a farmstead toma, anyway? My fellow cashiers and I wave them over, shouting, “Ask us questions!”
The people are overwhelmingly friendly, good-spirited, and pleasantly surprised that there’s frickin’ artisanal cheese at this music festival. Some seem to be serendipitously dropped at Cheese Lands’ doorstep, a mental Oh! registering on their faces. Others make a beeline through the crowd of Vaudevillian performers in full-on mime makeup, weave around the hula-hooper in the Pikachu suit, and approach us directly with a confident, “I WANT that burrata.”
Business is brisk and smooth, for the most part. A common misperception arises with two of our selections, the White Wine Plate and the Red Wine Plate. “They’re pairings for wine but do not come with wine” is the most diplomatic phrase I can come up with. In a true affirmation of the easygoing festival attitude (or, alternatively, general inebriation), I only encounter one person who declines to buy the plate after learning it was, in fact, wineless.
After noon or so the clouds take a hike, and in an act of geographical placement rivaling Stonehenge, the sun perfectly lines up with the cheese counter. I neglected to bring sunscreen, because the universe requires I forget at least one thing, always, so I borrow a Long Meadow Ranch trucker hat and do my best to shield my face.
“What’s burrata?” a trio of tanktopped bros in backwards caps inquires.
“It’s kinda like a creamier mozzarella. Our burrata—a special, advance screening from BelGioioso—is infused with truffles,” I tell them. The bros stand confused. “It’s that, uh, big white ball thing right over there.” A monger cutting a hunk of San Joaquin Gold behind me overhears, and for the rest of the weekend I will get teased about my masterly tasting notes for the artisanal, all-natural, Big White Ball.
Women, drunk and otherwise, hit on me. I, too, know something of the Vendor-Love-from-Afar (my brother and I still speak fondly of the Smoothie Girl of Aught-Ten), but it was something else to encounter it from the other side. Some are smooth, others more heavy-handed, but all are direct: “You should date my friend,” a blonde in a buckskin jacket levels with me, “She’s really cute.” I shake a few hands, forget a few names, but in the end I’m happy to fulfill that role for somebody else’s music festival experience.
There are a handful of guys and gals who are not so down to have a good time, or are more than a little ridiculous. After selling some plates to a pair of coeds in matching straw fedoras, one of the girls lowers her sunglasses, glances at the plate, looks at me, and asks, “Can I get some crackers that aren’t so cracked?” The pitch of her voice climbs as she reaches the end of the sentence, and I get the sense she talks like that even when she’s not asking a question. I look around at the mongers dashing to and fro behind me, apportioning cheese and almonds and crackers at a remarkably hectic pace.
I think to myself, “No.” I say out loud, “Sorry, we’ve been rationing our crackers, so what you see is what you get. But you can always buy another plate!”
Six hours and a sunburn later, the line of people needing cheese ASAP has diminished to a trickle. The Arctic Monkeys are setting up at one end of the grounds, but I know there is only one place I want to be. Exhausted and wearing a face several shades pinker than when I first arrived, I shuffle my feet toward the man who, despite his braggadocio—or, rather, because of it—I cannot help but dig and respect. I am, of course, talking about Kanye West.
Patrick joins me, and we crest the dusty rise to the lip of the Polo Field. We talk about social life in the UK versus the US (I think American driving culture has something to do with our 21-year-old drinking age) as we half-trot along with the herd. We spill out onto the lawn, squeeze between the windmills, and weave our way to a suitable distance from the stage. The anticipation builds and builds. Groups of friends chant their favorite Yeezy albums. The sun dips below the trees, and the moon makes its appearance. Finally, all eyes turn as a giant red LED cube ascends from the stage.
This is what I’m talking about—regardless of the setlist, the sense of epic proportions is enough to make me giddy. In suitably dramatic fashion, out pops Kanye. He’s wearing a diamond-studded luchador mask. A mic rests in his hand, waiting. And then it begins.
This is everything I could have hoped for: the crowd bobs its collective head, marijuana smoke drifts in clouds above me, we’re down, we’re having a good time. The best moment comes when Kanye stops in the middle of the song and spends a fruitless five minutes urging people to arrange themselves into dancing circles and just look at each other.
It’s in this moment that I realize: Despite the vast gulf between cheeses and Yeezus, they are very much alike. Some people love them; some people can’t stand them. At times they are subtle; at other times, piquant and in your face. But if you take them on their own merits—hear what they’re trying to say—you will nod your head, tap your feet, and eat it up.