After nearly two years of working full-time at a retail cheese counter, I have come to realize a cheesemonger’s job is often less about the cheese than it is the customer.
Whether customers know it or not, the holiday season for cheesemongers is brutal. We work long days, long hours, with no days off, to cut and sell cheese as fast as humanly possible. We have special chat groups on Facebook that act as therapy sessions. We tolerate an endless stream of “Do you know anything about cheese or do you just work here?” from well-meaning customers. But at the end of the day, and especially during this time of rush, rush, rush, I remember the customers who remind me why I fell in love with this job in the first place.
There are the jokesters: the old men who ask “What’s Gouda today?” Every. Single. Day.
There are the hipsters, who pretend to know the difference between Blue and Gorgonzola: “Are you sure this is crumbled Gorgonzola? It looks more like crumbled Blue.” Yawn.
There are the little old ladies who troll the department from one sample station to another, piling up cubes of Gruyere on their toothpicks and sliding them into their purses, saving them for later.
And then there are the customers that one gets to know, the ones you might be friends with if you weren’t wearing a hairnet and black bowl hat that no matter how you try and style it, still makes you look like a dork. Customers like Steve, who first walked in the door over a year ago with an exceptionally well-organized notebook of cheeses he’d sampled during the course of the past year, and whom today rivals any cheese expert in the nation.
Or Dad Rap Fan, who comes in with his grandson, Ben, every Monday, gives us an update on his rap star son, chats cheese for a few minutes, and says “See you next week” with a smile and a wave. Or Jean, who every single Thursday comes in for her Woolwich Goat Brie, and when none has come in that week, tells me we should go sing to the goats to help them make more milk.
These are the customers cheesemongers live for.
And then there are the customers we meet only once, who without knowing it, change our lives. Like the woman on Christmas Eve who asked me for help in finding a cheese, because although she had always really liked cheese, she seemed to have a hard time finding one that agreed with her these days.
So I walked her around our Wisconsin section, pointing out this and that, walking back to the counter to give her a taste now and then, when she shared the reason for her sudden cheese dilemma: she was undergoing chemotherapy for late-stage cancer and had lost her sense of taste. I got choked up. Then she got choked up. So we stood shoulder to shoulder, staring at the array of cheeses, until I asked her what was her all time favorite cheese.
She said, “Blue, but my doctor tells me I can’t eat it anymore, because my immune system has become compromised.” And I’m thinking, this sweet lady has late-stage cancer, and her doctor won’t let her eat blue cheese? Really? Come on.
So I showed her the Roelli Dunbarton Blue. I told her it was a cheddar with just a veining of blue, so she really wouldn’t be breaking her doctor’s rules. She smiled, took the cheese, read my name tag, and told me she would pray for me.
Pray for me. Me.
A lady with late-stage cancer undergoing chemotherapy is praying for me. All because I helped her find the right cheese.
Thus, a sign a very dear friend gave me for Christmas this year, rings true: “I have yet to find a problem that can’t be solved with cheese.”
Happy New Year, Cheese Underground fans. May the cheese of your dreams find you in 2015.