Gordon Edgar loves cheese and worker-owned co-ops, and has been combining both of these infatuations as a cheesemonger at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco for over 16 years. Edgar has been a judge at cheese competitions, a board member for the California Artisan Cheese Guild, and has had a blog since 2002, which can be found at www.gordonzola.net. Surrounded by his vast and decaying collection of zines and obscure punk 7-inches, he lives in San Francisco with his girlfriend and their white miniature schnauzer. His political cheese memoir, Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge was published in early 2010.
Raymond Hook: How long have you been at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative and how did you get the job? Describe a little about Rainbow and your position there.
Gordon Edgar: I started working at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in 1994 and became the cheese buyer within about 6 months. I actually had no background in food before I got hired, my interest in working at Rainbow mostly had to do with wanting to be part of the living experiment in workplace democracy that is Rainbow. Luckily, the mid-‘90s were a less competitive time for cheese selling and I was able to learn while on the job.
Rainbow Grocery Cooperative is a supermarket-sized natural foods store that is owned and run by the people who work there (Read the history of Rainbow Grocery). We’re San Francisco’s largest independent natural food store even though – because of the beliefs of our founders – we don’t carry meat or fish. Luckily, animal rennet got an early exemption so our cheese section can be pretty complete. One of the best things about being worker-owned is that people stick around, so our cheese department is very experienced. Including me, our five most experienced workers have been here a total of about 70 years! My job is to taste and select cheese for our store to carry, make signs describing those cheeses, help educate co-workers about cheese, and receive and examine the cheese as it gets delivered on the days I work. I also work behind the counter cutting, wrapping, pricing, and talking to customers part of the week.
RH: What is your definition of a Cheesemonger? When did you realize this was your calling?
Gordon Edgar: On the most basic level, a cheesemonger is someone who buys and sells cheese. There is no certification (as yet) but there should be some kind of experience and expertise inherent in the title as well. In my book, I talk about a few other qualifications like kicking a sales rep out of the store, being injured on the job, and killing a rat in the walk-in, but I would concede that not everyone views those things as requirements.
I realized it was my calling when I first tasted a well-aged Gruyère. All of a sudden, I had a glimpse into not only the complexity of flavor, but I was burning with questions about the intricacy of the cheese aging process… why was this cheese so much better than any I had tasted before? What went into making it that way? When is a cheese aged with skill and when is it just old? Why is Swiss Gruyère different than Gruyère de Comte? I know many of these answers now, but the beauty of cheese is that there’s always more to know.
RH: What inspired you to write a book, who is the book for — I mean what type of person buys a Cheesemonger book?
Gordon Edgar: The idea of the book started when – in the early 2000s – I had a little blog that was pretty general in nature. I would write about whatever I was thinking that day, but I noticed that when I wrote about cheese I would get tons of responses. There was a lot less cheese on the internet back then so people – strangers – started finding my blog and asking for advice.
I started envisioning a longer work – which eventually became Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge because I wanted to be able to have a longer conversation with folks than is possible in a retail setting or in the comments section on the internet. I made it part food politics, part cheese because those are my interests and I included some memoir-y bits that pertain to my story of how I got into cheese because I wanted to keep it demystified and accessible.
Probably the most gratifying response I get is from other cheese workers – those make me cry! — but as far as I can tell, lots of different types of people are buying it. I’ve even heard from vegans who liked it!
RH: Your cheese shop sells more California cheese than any other cheese shop in the world, why is this important? Did you intend for this to happen, or did it just work out that way?
Gordon Edgar: Well, supporting the local agricultural communities is certainly important to me and our whole cooperative. But I’m also kind of lucky to have grown up and live in a place where there is such a variety of high quality cheese produced. I have criticisms of locavorism, but having a big, popular local section of cheese is — without a doubt — crucial to our community.
Many years ago – before American cheeses were as popular as they are now – our department made a decision to always promote at least an equal number of American cheeses and European ones. Considering there is a lot more promotional money available for Euro cheeses, this took extra work but all of us knew that the future of cheese is to make it more local and not just rely on the traditional cheeses. That idea worked really well in parallel with the rise of farmers markets to help let the average cheese eater (or would-be cheese eater) know that something new and different was going on, that you could buy an American cheese that wasn’t just cheddar or a pale copy of a traditional European cheese.
RH: What was the best/easiest part of writing your book, and the toughest?
Gordon Edgar: The easiest parts of the book to write were the cheese selling anecdotes that I had been amusing friends with for years anyway. The hardest was the dairy science parts. I triple checked most of the details because I was terrified of getting it wrong and I figured my editors wouldn’t have the science background to catch any mistakes I made. My book isn’t heavy on the dairy science, but it’s hard to tell the story of cheese without a little bit.
By the way, for a great book about the science of cheese, check out American Farmstead Cheeses by Professor Paul Kindsedt. I am indebted to that work.
RH: Do you prefer wine and cheese or beer and cheese? What are some of your favorite pairings?
Gordon Edgar: I prefer beer and cheese, I really do. But hey, you are the beer/cheese pairing expert! I’m sure your advice is better than mine. I do have a couple of everyday faves though. Lagunitas Farmhouse Saison Ale and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar: spicy, earthy Belgian-style brew with a sweet, sharp earthy cheddar. Hard to stop consuming either once you start. Black Butte Porter and Rogue Caveman Blue: Hearty cheese and hearty beer perfect for cold San Francisco summers. Oh, I think I have to go to the bar now.
RH: Are you planning on another book?
Gordon Edgar: Yes, but I can’t talk about it yet. Shhhhhhhh.
RH: Where is the future of cheese in San Francisco, California and the USA heading?
Gordon Edgar: More American originals for sure. I think we have just scratched the surface of cheesemaking potential. There are, for example, phenomenal cheeses from Oregon and Washington that almost no one outside the region has even tried. People will be blown away when they find out. Like in punk rock of the ‘80s, there is a lot of mutual aid and pressure to improve in strong regional-based cheese communities. I’m sure there are non-West Coast cheese scenes that I am totally ignorant of that right now that I will be singing the praises of down the line.
RH: What is the best cheesy thing to do in San Francisco?
Gordon Edgar: Well, besides hitting the sample table at our store, I’d have to say that getting a few cheeses and heading to Zeitgeist to drink a few pitchers of beer (different beers of course, for pairing experimentation) on a workday afternoon is my favorite cheese thing ever.
RH: This interview is about your book. Where is it available online?
Buy Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge on Amazon.com