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Ruminations: Counter Culture

As anyone who works full time behind a cheese counter will tell you, not all customers are created equal.

A casual “Do you know anything about cheese or do you just work here?” makes me want to slap my forehead—as do well-meaning activists versed in raw milk, veal rennet, or genetically modified starter culture, who badger me to stop carrying the cheeses that violate their issue du jour. Curd curmudgeons (infamous among the staff for being particularly disagreeable) might find an empty counter as we all dash to the walk-in cooler as soon as they step in the door.

Yet when mongers get together—whether it’s online in a Facebook group or bellied up to the bar at an industry conference—we almost always end the night by talking about the customers who remind us why we fell in love with the job in the first place, the customers we live for.

There are the jokesters: the old men who specifically ask about a different cheese every day, just so they can work it into a pun. “I have an addiction to cheddar,” they’ll say, followed by—wait for it—“It’s only mild.” Hipsters, more charming than grating and endearing in their efforts, ask to taste five different bries, then pretend they can taste the difference between Penicillium candidum and Penicillium camemberti.

And if we weren’t wearing hairnets, we’d probably befriend some of the regulars. Customers like George, an old bachelor who, after years of asking for my advice about which cheese to take to his family reunions, confides his middle name is Winston, and that he was named after George Washington and Winston Churchill. Or Kathleen, who gives us two weeks advance notice about the cheeses she’ll need for each dish in the Downton Abbey–themed dinner party she throws every Sunday night.

Finally, there are people we meet only once but who change our lives. I’ll never forget the woman who stopped by and said she really liked cheese but was having a hard time finding one that agreed with her. I was offering tastes of several local wedges when she suddenly shared the reason for her dilemma: She was undergoing chemotherapy for late-stage cancer, and her sense of taste was suffering.

I choked up. She choked up. We stood, shoulder to shoulder, studying the selection. I asked about her favorite cheese. “Blue, but my doctor tells me I can’t eat it anymore, because my immune system has become compromised,” she said.

So I showed her Dunbarton Blue from Wisconsin’s Roelli Cheese Haus. It’s cheddar with sparse, subtle blue veins—so technically, I told her, she wasn’t going against doctor’s orders. She smiled, read my name tag, and told me she would pray for me.

Pray for me. A customer with a debilitating disease said she would pray for me—all because I helped her find the right cheese.

This memory is among the moments that remind me why I began mongering in the first place. Working a cheese counter is more than a profession: It’s a true calling. And when done right, it’s less about selling cheese than it is about talking and connecting with customers. (Even if a few of them send us scrambling for the shelter of the walk-in.)

Illustration by Aleks Sennwald

Jeanne Carpenter

Jeanne Carpenter, a former spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, manages the specialty cheese department at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madisonm and in her spare time she organizes events for her favorite organizations: Wisconsin Cheese Originals and the Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemaker Guild.

One thought on “Ruminations: Counter Culture”

  1. Avatar Ame says:

    Your article is applicable the Cheesemonger-world-over. I have many customers who have shared a little bit of information about their lives. The sense of satisfaction when they leave your counter happy, having had a great experience, and conversation, is the best., or they have learned about the ‘Tom’, ‘Sarah’ or Eamonn, who made their chosen cheese. They might have arrived panicked because they know nothing about cheese and it’s their turn to host The Book Club, or they hate cheese but have to cook dinner for a business occasion. Mostly, though, it’s the ones who tell you a little bit of ‘their story’ that are the most rewarding. They may be buying a special gift for a special someone, for an important occasion, or, cheese is their passion and this is their treat. 50g or 4kg, cheese shopping can be theraputic, for customers and Mongers! 😃

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