Photo: Micki Harris
Alisha Norris Jones’s official title is “cheesemonger” at Marz Community Brewing in Chicago, but that’s a laughable understatement. At Marz alone, she’s also bartender, food runner, buyer, and occasional brewery cat wrangler, and that’s to say nothing of her 2017 ACS CCP certification, her multiple Cheesemonger Invitational wins, or her monthly tarot column for Windy City apothecary Asrai Garden. Norris Jones also chose the onset of a pandemic to adopt the enviably cool sobriquet “Immortal Milk” and start selling lush, poetic cheese boxes she conceptualizes like dissertations around themes like Italo Disco and Saturnalia.
She also spent 2020 churning out collabs, raising money for things like Brave Space Alliance (a QTBIPOC-focused nonprofit) and Grocery Run Club (an initiative to alleviate food insecurity in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods) in the process. During a recent mash-up with Japanese comfort food pop-up Mom’s, she stuffed donuts with apple-cheddar, raclette-potato, and pomegranate-gorgonzola fillings; last September, she partnered with virtual retailer notaplantshop to create a plant and cheese experience that included a playlist and shareable plant cuttings. Her interdisciplinary leanings bring cheese to the places you least expect it, and she’s not done yet. I managed to find a hole in her schedule to talk cheese mood boards, staying awake, and what the stars have in store for artisan cheese.
culture: Tell me how you got into this wild world of cheese.
ALISHA NORRIS JONES: I got into cheese by way of restaurants and a stint as a pastry assistant at The Publican and Publican Quality Meats. I was a lousy pastry cook, but the art of wrapping cheese and setting up a cheese case spoke to me. I’d never had fine cheese before, and suddenly I found myself breaking down wheels of Shropshire Blue and listening to my chef wax poetic about Pleasant Ridge Reserve. It was fascinating. From there I waited tables around Chicago and threw ice cream burlesque parties at the loft I lived in at the time, always with cheese in the back of my mind. Eventually, after a good case of restaurant burnout, I decided to try my hand at working the cheese counter at Whole Foods. Best decision I ever made.
You keep VERY busy—a day job, your own business, a zillion collab s brewing at once. What keeps you going, coffee? Danskos? Malort?
ANJ: A steady supply of cold brew, cartoons, and Tyler the Creator & Joy Division on repeat. Malort and Letherbee Fernet for extreme emergencies.
You recently won the cheese plate contest at the Cheesemonger Invitational virtual Flattening the Curd event. What was on your plate and how’d you dream it up?
ANJ: Ah, that was so much fun! I was assigned Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt Tam, which is such a joy to work with. I usually end up going big and maximal with my plates, so I tried to take a different approach this time around. I chose to focus on seasonality, and fortunately Flattening the Curd took place in late summer, early fall, which is usually when farmers markets are banging with late-season stone fruit, tomatoes, veggies, and the like. My plate featured nectarine jam, pickled cherry tomatoes for a bit of acid to cut all of that lovely fat in Mt Tam, shortbread crumble, freeze dried corn, Marcona almonds, and Miele Santo, a Marz-made fermented garlic honey inspired by Italy’s Olio Santo.
Tell me about starting Immortal Milk this spring, in the midst of the pandemic.
ANJ: I started Immortal Milk as a way to document the work I created at Marz, as well as away to mourn what felt like an era. At that point we had no idea when or if we’d be able to reopen, and it was hard to imagine there’d be much need for a cheesemonger in a world that was struggling to come to grips with a pandemic. Then, in June my boss asked if I was ready to start my own business and begin selling cheese plates at the Marz Farmers Market. What started out as an Instagram account turned into an underground cheese shop of sorts.
You’re doing such cool themes with it—Italo Disco, retro futurism, fabulism. Where do you look for inspiration for these?
ANJ: Music, sci-fi movies, design, my 20s in Chicago, old Encyclopedia Britannicas, cookbooks, honestly anything and everything. I treat each theme as an opportunity to tell a story, as well as an excuse to obsessively research the Basque region or accounts of Edna Lewis’s first restaurant in New York City.
I love that you mood board your cheese plates. Can we get a sneak peek at some upcoming areas you want to explore?
ANJ: Absolutely! I’m currently working on a board for an upcoming project with Elizabeth Cronin of HBO’s Full Bloom. We’re going for a dark, maximalist, moody goth vibe with nods to the great Dutch masters, vanitas still lifes, and kintsugi.
What are some of your favorite cheeses being made in the Midwest right now?
ANJ: I love everything coming out of Blakesville Creamery, especially Lyndey Lynde, a beautiful ash-ripened goat with notes of grass, slate, and citrus. I’m also a big fan of Evergreen Creamery’s Pointe Pyramid and Foxglove from Tulip Tree Creamery.
I know you’re a seasoned reader of tarot—what do you see on the horizon for the artisan cheese industry right now?
ANJ: The Magician, who’s all about free will, flexibility, concentration, and manifestation. In order to move with the times, we must build bridges to new communities, be clever in creating new ways to reach our guests, and open to trying new strategies. Also, their outfit is pretty fantastic.