Friday, December 17, 2004

Ode To The Dairy

cheese, originally uploaded by azurenath.

Just as, despite my best intentions, I can’t seem to avoid cold, gray winters, I can’t escape early fucking mornings either. If I had to judge by my first thoughts at waking up, I don’t think I’d be able to tell between Belgium and England (or Providence)—in each case, I slap my alarm clock, glance slanty-eyed at the sky outside the window, and groan with resignation. It’s early, it’s cold, and the sun’s decided to take a sick day for the fifteenth time running.

Thank god for the things that remind me I’m unmistakably in London. I remember a few years ago falling in love with the chimneys’ silhouette against daybreak, coming home after the Oscars ended at 4 a.m. London time. The bobbies and their funny hats, the red phone booths, the impassive blurry faces of people on subways gaining speed. New York’s subways look tired, Paris’ frankly evil, but London’s are friendly and boxy and so conveniently frequent!

Since I last wrote I’ve dropped the Selfridges gig and gone full-time at the dairy. This means that most days I’m getting up at the crack of dawn (or before), gulping down a few pieces of toast, walking to a bus stop in what feels to my still-bed-warm body like Arctic temps, and getting to work an hour later, ready for ten more of Olympic-level Stilton curling. On the plus side, my clothes are more comfortable, I don’t have to wear makeup or blow-dry, and my voice is slowly reverting back to its normal register—at Selfridges for some reason I couldn’t help myself from speaking in really high-pitched tones (“May I gift-wrap that for you, madam?”). On the downside, my hands have begun to look like my Swiss grandmother’s, who spent her entire life wrist-deep in hot, soapy water. The Stilton juice dries my skin out and the dairy’s cold air makes my fingers so numb that I’m constantly nicking them against rough surfaces; they’re covered in little cuts. They really look awful.

I love this job. Everyone who works here—from the guy who built the company to the HR people to the truck drivers to the cheese buyers—everyone started behind the counter, selling cheese for six pounds an hour. One of my colleagues, the dairy's affineur, is a white dude who grew up in a Zambian village—like, in a shack—and later represented on Zambia’s Olympic swim team. Another guy had just finished a Ph.D in evolutionary biology and researched salmon sperm in west Wales before coming to cheese; one girl was training to be an exotic dancer; one just finished a three-month stint in Africa teaching cheesemaking to the Masai. One guy used to be a hoodlum in Manchester—petty thief, belligerent drunk—before he started. It is the oddest, most motley assortment of people, and the thing that brings them together is their passion for cheese and their love for the dairy. I know this sounds extreme. But this place lends itself to evangelizing. Who knew British cheese was so good? God, who knew that British cheese other than cheddar and Stilton even existed?

The zeal is infectious. My colleague Zach bust out laughing one day while checking his voicemail. “That was Kwame,” he said. “He’s discovered a new lunch sandwich and wanted to tell me about it. Check it: Monty’s cheddar, spicy gherkins, and red onions on a toasted, buttered baguette.” It’s like hanging out with crew people, for whom everything relates to crew, only cheese is the new world order, and the common ground at the dairy a youthful vigor, an unashamed willingness to get hands dirty, attention paid to good food and drink, and a belief in these as a medium for social change as well as pleasure. Most importantly, a conception of the dairy as a place where this change can be effected.

It’s like a commune in this joint. I’ve never had a job where the manager’s as likely to be found holding a bleach bucket and a broom as a newbie is. The girls lift as heftily, as heartily, as the guys, and get as much respect. At the end of the day, everyone heads for the pub, where the guy who represents the dairy on British television will bum a cigarette in exchange for a beer and tell dirty jokes.

Some examples of the work environment for contrapuntal purposes: in the dairy’s wholesale office is a framed picture of Elvis, on a top shelf gathering dust—someone’s drawn horns on him with a Sharpie. And when shit hits the fan on Saturdays, the busiest time of the week, someone steals downstairs and makes us all Irish coffees to ‘calm our nerves.’ At Selfridges, on the other hand, security checked our bags and IDs every time we entered or left the building. There, we had to buy our own lunches—tired iceberg lettuce salads (greenish cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots and foamy, fat-bubbled vinaigrette) or bruised and soggy fries from the store’s cafeteria; lunch at the dairy is anything in the store, free. And my job description here includes patting down cheese mold. Tell me that’s not dynamite!
All kidding aside, the dairy’s a serious place, selling more cheese by square foot of store space than any other cheesemonger in the world. Supermarket cheddar RETAILS at 2/3 the price the dairy pays its cheesemakers for their cheddar, but the cheese is really fucking good, sells well, and is well sold too—everyone comes away having tasted and learned.
One day I was working mail-order, that is, packing cheese in wood-wool-filled boxes for delivery to people’s homes in time for Christmas. I think we filled four hundred boxes that day, and at one point someone waved a sheet of paper in the air: Delia Smith’s order (Smith is Britain’s Martha Stewart). I was struck that no one stopped and double-checked the box to make sure Delia was getting perfect pieces. Everyone was so confident in the excellence of the cheese and the quality of their work that there was no need for star treatment.
The impact of what the dairy does hit me when I realized that Slow Food, an international nonprofit with a lot of pull in the food world, has 100,000 members—whereas in a year the dairy will touch double that amount of people.

I came to London to work a dumb job that would hold me over till Christmas. And I’ve fallen into a community of interesting, passionate, vivacious people who spend ten hours a day getting others to taste and talk and think about food—how it eats, how it’s made, who makes it. Since that happens to be pretty much what I want to spend the rest of my life doing…it was a rather fortunate stumble.


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7:06 AM  

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