Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review -- Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge

Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge is a memoir by Gordon "Zola" Edgar, who buys and sells cheese for the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco.

Cheesemonger traces Edgar's accidental road into the world of cheese, explaining that he stumbled upon his job circuitously, after growing up on punk politics and less than gourmet Velveeta and Kraft singles. After working at Rainbow for a while and sampling cheese after cheese but loving none of them, Edgar’s life changed for good when he tasted an Antique Gruyere. That Gruyere was his gateway cheese.

Throughout the book, Edgar interlaces stories about his life as a cheesemonger with platefuls of cheese descriptions and buying tips. He also offers bits of insider’s wisdom on cheese snobbery, farming practices, raw milk, and worker-owned cooperatives. Though officially a memoir, Cheesemonger is more than just an autobiography. Edgar delves into the complexities that underlie certain food buzzwords. For instance: what does it mean when a farmer says he grazes his cows on pasture? Does that mean the cows get the majority of their food from a pasture? Not always. As Edgar notes, especially when it comes to “ill-defined catchphrases,” what’s good for marketing isn’t always the whole truth. Farming is full of compromises. But he doesn't gloss over the gap between farming ideals and practices. He aims to tell the whole story, and "not just the pretty bits."

Gordon Edgar might seem like an unlikely champion of farms: when he was younger, punker, and growing up in San Francisco, his bogeymen were the farm boys who allegedly waited outside Marin County punk shows with ax handles. It's ironic, says Edgar, that he now makes a living selling a farm product. Edgar calls the cheesemakers he knows an interesting mix of 1970s back-to-the-landers and old farm families. Their politics and religions vary, and Edgar muses that some of his leftist customers might not be so eager to support the cheesemakers if they knew about their religious fundamentalist or conservative beliefs.

But one of my favorite things about agritourism and the local foods movement -- and Cheesemonger highlights this point well -- is that they encourage unlikely alliances across cultural divides. In the words of Edgar, "In this country, where urban and rural communities have become increasingly polarized, if one believes that blue/red election results are indicative of people's true feelings, food is one of the few remaining avenues of contact. This exchange isn't much, but I try to do my part to build solidarity by not being an elitist jerk."

Cheesemonger has the right ingredients to be a fun read. First, it's about cheese, a delicious, strange, and ancient food. Second, it's written by a passionate punk-inspired ambassador with a righteous anti-snob attitude. That Edgar also delves into topics like farmland preservation and farm policy is a great bonus.

Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, by Gordon Edgar, was published in March 2010 by Chelsea Green

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