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Origin Story Pt. 2

There are two distinct eras of my life: Before my counter job at Helen’s Cheese, and after I was let go from Helen’s Cheese. No matter the circumstances, despite the fact that Helen’s was run like a mafia front, the experience at Helen’s changed my life and taught me so much about cheese, like where it comes from, how much it is, which customers to hook up or keep satisfied, and which ones are dead to me.

In short, it made me a better cheesemonger, despite the fact that I’m positive that everyone there hated me from day one. Looking back, that’s probably because I was very late from day one, and always had some piss-poor excuse. Honestly, if it weren’t for the high turnover of “shift leads” Helen would hire remotely while she was “away on business” evading the IRS while establishing various tax shelters all over the world, I might never have lasted as long as I did (fourteen months).

It probably worked in my favor that I never met Helen in the first place, and am not entirely sure that’s her name or even that she exists. Rumor has it Helen is actually five or six people, none of which are named Helen, but that’s all behind me now.

With my tenure at Helen’s over and done with, I took a few weeks off to be drunk. Once I came out of my Drambuie binge, it was time to rejoin the cheese world——my fire had been lit and it needed nourishing. So, I updated my resume with my newfound experience (and expertise, if I do say so myself) and went into town with a new and fierce determination.

My first destination was, of course, Pizzoli’s. I entered the tiny, immaculate cheese shop on my tippy-toes, a little worried that Gary wouldn’t remember me. He was behind the counter breaking down a wheel of Reggiano Parmiggiano and didn’t notice me come in.

As I approached the counter, I said, “Hi Gary.” He looked up and an instant all the color drained from his face.

“No. No no no,” he said. “No way. Get out. Leave, right this minute.”

“It’s okay, Mr. Pizzoli,” I said. “It’s me, Cheese. I did like you said. I worked my way up at Helen’s and now I’m ready for the Big Leagues.”

“I don’t care if you’re name is Parma Ham, get out of my shop!”

It dawned on me in that moment that at some point I had fallen out of his favor, though which of the times I overstepped his boundaries bothered him the most is difficult to discern. It’s also possible he had heard “the story.”

“The story” is the one about how I lost my job at Helen’s. See, I was just 18 years old at the time, still wet behind the ears and hornier than ever. There was this girl, Danielle Butler, who I had ‘met’ on the Internet and who happened to be having a big party that night. I had begged off the schedule so I could go but to no avail. About an hour before closing, I asked my shift lead, Tim, if I could go home early because I was feeling “bad.” Without looking up from his Juggz magazine, he scratched his beard and said, “I don’t care.”

Taking that as a yes, I clocked out, ran out to my little Mazda, cracked open a Zima, cranked the new Pantera and sped off to my parents’ house to change clothes and soak my neck in Old Spice.

It was a long drive to Danielle’s and once there I made my way through the crush of sweaty dancing teens with teddy-bear backpacks and wide-leg jeans twirling glow sticks and smacking gum——but Danielle Butler was nowhere among them. I got tired of searching for her through the crowd and snuck away upstairs to maybe take a nap.

I would give anything to go back in time and not go up those stairs, or even not go to that party, or to just stay at work and finish my shift like a normal person. Alas, I’m stuck with my fateful decision and must suffer for it forever, for it was in the upstairs bathroom that I found, to my shock and dismay, Danielle Butler, the object of my World Wide Web affections, making out with Tim! The shift lead!

Not only was my internet girlfriend cheating on me with stupid Tim, but stupid Tim told everyone in town and soon every cheese and meat purveyor in a fifty mile radius knew me as either someone who fakes sick or someone who was made to look foolish by stupid Tim.

After striking out at Pizzoli’s, I slinked from grocery to grocery, even falling so far as to apply for a part-time position at a Subway, but even they knew who I was, (and not in a good way). Everyone had either heard “The Story” or maybe they had talked to Gary. I knew then that I’d never be a famous cheese blogger if I spent my whole life in Blessed, TX.

I told Venus and Peter that I wanted to go be on my own, to try to become a cheese blogger. Somehow, they both understood. Or, they were stoned and didn’t hear me and were just going along with whatever I would say. My mom gave me a hundred bucks and a nice, new clown wig. “I was saving this for your graduation, but you can have it now. Maybe you can wear it when you blog.” My dad stuffed a freshly-rolled blunt in my top pocket, winked and said “don’t spend it all in one place.” With that, I was ready for the world.

I packed everything I owned into a beat-up old suitcase (absolutely loved typing that sentence), filled up my tank and drove all the way down to Austin, TX. Austin promised hope, freedom, and an artisanal cheese scene that was much more progressive, as in, they had no idea who I was and, so, would be much more accepting.

Cruising down I-35 that day I vowed to myself to be the best cheesemonger I could, without sacrificing who I was.

The problem was: who was I?

***To Be Continued***

Origin Story Pt.1

Hi there. My name, my full, actual name, is Cheese Barnaby Peterson.

No, Cheese is not short for anything; it’s just Cheese (and then Barnaby and then Peterson). I grew up in a tiny little town called Blessed [bless-əd], TX, right on the Texas/Louisiana border. It’s funny, most of our house was in Texas, but about half our living room was in Louisiana! Hahaha! Well, I guess you had to be there.

If you’re sitting there wondering, “What kind of parents would name their kid Cheese?” Well, I’ll tell you.

My mother, Venus, was an immensely talented circus clown and the breadwinner of the family. My dad, Peter Peterson (I know), was just a really cool guy who smoked a lot of weed and sort of pretended he was in a biker gang. He and Venus met backstage in at a traveling circus gig when he was a roadie and she was a Level 2 Clown. Incidentally, before retiring, she reached level 12, the highest level there is. Just saying, the woman could clown. Anyway, they fell in love immediately and an orangutan officiated their wedding an hour later.

One day, when my mom was about eight months preggers, she and my dad were sharing a joint on the couch while watching Barnaby Jones on the TV, and she said, “Baby, go to the fridge and get me some cheese.”

He sat there on the couch not really hearing her and mumbled, “Ya know, honey, I’m thinkin’ we should name the kid Barnaby. That’s a good f*ckin’ name.”

My mom said, “I’m gonna name the baby Cheese if you don’t get up and get me some right now.”

My dad just smiled and sat back and crossed his arms and said, “Suits me.”

Then they were both laughing, and with heavy lips and eyelids, my mom said, “Yeah. I like Cheese. That’s a good f*ckin’ name. Cheese Barnaby Peterson.”

Well, my dad couldn’t handle that. He laughed so hard he spit up his ravioli dinner all down his shirt.

Then my mom exclaimed between breathy laughs, “Peter, it’s a sign! The baby’s name is Cheese!”

My dad grinned widely with chunks on his cheeks and said either “rock n’ roll” or “praise Jesus” but I could never get them to agree.

I’m glad they had such a good time naming me Cheese, I really, really am.

Sometimes folks are like, “why don’t you just go by your middle name?”

First of all, y’all need to stop asking me this. I love my first name and I never complain about it. Ever.

Secondly, Barnaby is an old-fashioned name. But some folks are like, you could go by “Barney” or “Barn.”

Well, Barney is out of the question because my estranged cousin is named Barney, after Barney Miller, the TV character. And did I mention Barney was a registered sex offender? Plus somebody told me he hated cheese, too, so, no, we can’t have the same name.

And “Barn” is a non-starter because that would just lead to more questions, like whether I was RAISED in a barn, etc, etc, etc.

No, thank you, my name is Cheese, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not that I want anyone to do anything about it, just saying.

At this point, you’re probably wondering, “how did you come to be a cheese blogger?” Well, hold your horses, we’re getting there.

So high school was weird. I was somehow both popular AND friendless. Popular because of my name, friendless because of major trust issues due to past trauma (more on that possibly another time, this is a cheese blog hehe 🤪).

I will say, more than once, someone invited me to a party and when they showed up with me, announced, “Hey look everyone, I brought Cheese!” and everyone at the party would get excited for a second and look over and then there was this chorus of laughter and annoyed groans, because they were expecting a tray of cheese cubes, not me. Once the laughter died down and everyone got their comments in, I was then shown the door and asked to leave.

After graduating high school, my mom said, “we can’t afford to send you to college, but I do get a discount at the clown school.” I appreciated the effort but clowning is not for me (trust me). I dropped out after a month because even at clown school everyone’s like, “Your real name is CHEESE???”

To that comment I always wanted to say, “No, my real name is Fromage, but I changed it to Cheese to make it easier for idiots like you.”

I’ve never actually said this to anyone but in my head it leaves them feeling devastated and then I’m overcome with guilt and cancel all my plans for the night.

Clown school wasn’t all bad, actually. That’s where I met Gary Pizzoli. “I don’t have to be in clown school,” he said. He was an older guy, doing it just as a hobby, this clowning. And it really was, because Gary owned and operated the premiere cheese shop in town, Pizzoli’s Life of Cheese.

“Well, I’ll be, my first name is Cheese!”

This is the first thing I ever really said to him, and for some reason I said it really loud, so loud that I pee’d a little (okay, a lot). All at once in that moment, the idea came to me that I should lean into my name and work in cheese and learn as much as possible about it. This was my destiny.

He crooked his eyebrow and asked, “do you have any experience selling it?” It was as if for a second, he had envisioned perhaps making me his store’s spokesman, or mascot, include me in the branding somewhere.

“Oh no, haha.” I said.

“Hmmmm,” he “said.”

You’d think with this name that I was born into the business, but no, far from it. For the first twenty years of my life, I avoided cheese like a collarless dog. You never had collarless dogs roaming your neighborhood? Huh, we had packs of them just running amok, all different breeds, beautiful, majestic, trotting into town from the woods in tight formation, fresh game hanging from their bloody jaws. No one even thought of petting them. Maybe it was just a regional thing. Anyway, that’s my example of something I’d avoid. I treated cheese same as those dogs——until I met Gary.

I told Gary Pizzoli all of this, including the stuff about the dogs, because I had started talking and when that happens I can’t stop until people start looking at their watch. He looked at his watch and said, “well, now I definitely don’t want to hire you.”

But, he did say, when he saw how upset I was getting, that if I was actually interested in working in cheese, which I had just realized was my destiny, he could help me get a job at Helen’s, the “other” cheese shop in town. He said if he hears good things about me from Helen’s, then maybe one day I could go work “in the big leagues” behind the counter at his shop.

I was intimidated, touched, and also I thought, “gosh, this guy kinda seems like a douche.” Still, I took him up on his offer, though now I think he was just feeding me a line. He seemed annoyed when I kept calling him and calling him and calling him to follow up about it, though maybe (probably) it was the addition of all the voicemails I left——and I can only imagine all the texts I would have sent, had they been a thing at the time.

But, it all paid off.

One day, five weeks later, he finally picked up and said, “Just go to Helen’s and apply, okay? And if they call me, I’ll say they should hire you. Are you happy? Please, just leave me alone.” He also went on this whole rant about how he wished he’d never met me, but I cut all that for brevity.

And so awaited the most transformative and consequential job application form of my career as a cheese-forward foodie…

***To be continued***