Origin Story Pt. 3

Okay, if there are THREE distinct eras in my life, they are most certainly

  1. My life before I worked at Helen’s
  2. My Post-Helen’s Purgatory in Blessed, TX
  3. Austin and beyond

Austin, TX was very kind to me. Possibly too kind. My first week there, I was out cruising the main strip and walked into a tiny food co-op, Goddess Harvest, staffed with scruffy smiling young people all wearing aprons they brought from home. I asked if they were looking for anyone, and a woman with eight colors in her hair smiled and said “always” while nodding her head to the free-jazz coming from the little boombox above the front entrance.

I said, “I know Cheese. I am Cheese.”

“Rad,” she said. She was Jacinta, the food and beverage manager, and this exchange ended up counting as my interview. I started the next day, portioning and wrapping cheese. My wages were meager, but we were allowed to bring home whatever was in the Free Box, which was filled with everything from too-soft avocados to bean dip from the previous summer to a discarded blue tuxedo.

Over the months, I found The Free Box to be a veritable font of yesterday’s bread, expired jams and weird pickles no one likes——it was like getting a free scholarship to Cheesemonger University! That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway. Another way to see it is I lived off spoiled food for over a year. Let’s just say both and move on.

I spent nearly a decade in Austin but it felt like a weekend mostly because I was smashed just about the entire time. My stint at Goddess Harvest introduced me to just about every sustainability-minded party-loving foodie in Central Texas. Austin seemed like an easy ladder to climb, but this is deceiving; there’s no ladder in Austin, just a bitchin’ public pool that everyone swam and shat in, and if you were down with that, you were groovy. Turns out I can barely doggy-paddle and I am far from groovy.

I got lucky with a rent-controlled apartment on the East Side that I moved into within my first week there and I never left. It was there that I hosted some of the craziest Cheese *and* Charcuterie ragers Austin has ever experienced. People I didn’t know and would never see again came to my parties to try the cheeses I’d brought in from all over the world, listening to the mixes I had meticulously constructed for each party, careful to curate a casual, pleasurable experience in exchange for attention. I was living the pretentious cocktail party foodie bachelor life and loving every minute of it. But, like a $20 sports coat from H&M, it just couldn’t last.

One nice thing in those days is rarely did my name come up, and when it did, it rarely mattered. Once I met a guy named Suplex Duplex. Another guy I met was named Lattice——just Lattice. Can you believe that? Austin is so weird. I met both those guys at one of my parties one night. I don’t know who they were with or if they were in the specialty food industry, but they said they really liked all my “cheese and wine and beer and meat and music collection and clown wig.”

After the party, I noticed a few of my things were missing, including the wig. Yes, the new wig my mom gave me. I went berserk, shaking down everyone at Goddess, losing my wig over losing my wig. “Who took my fluffy red wig? Was it YOU? Did you put Suplex up to this?” I was a drunk and terrifying mess.

And that was it for me at Goddess Harvest, sending me into another tailspin.

After Goddess, I tried my hand at waiting tables. I put in a few years at a local pizza joint, The Roman Pit, working lunches there while moonlighting at various other flash-in-the-pan dining establishments. I could handle serving slices during the day, when I was sober, but the lower the sun dropped, the more I would drink, until night had fallen completely and I was “ready” for my evening shift, breath smelling of Crest and Root Beer schnapps.

Shifts would often go like this:

“Cheese, you’re late. And you’re drunk. You can’t be doing this every week! Every night now! It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to the staff. Get your shit together. This is the last time I’m telling you, dude.” And so on.

What am I supposed to do with that? I’m a cheese guy!

This is one of the reasons why I should have been blogging the whole time. Fewer eyes spying on you, judging your every move, following you into the walk-in freezer where you were hoping to at least hit the Root Beer schnapp’s you’d hidden behind the pork butt.

I was spinning my wheels with all these restaurant gigs, slowly forgetting everything knew about cheese. I needed to get back on that cheese path, and fast.

It was around this time, in 2005, at age 27, when I started my first Cheese Blog, and I called it “The Stilton Chronicles”. I got about four entries in before I forgot my password and couldn’t update it anymore. But that was just the beginning. I was now determined to make my mark on the cheese world.

A few months later, I started a new cheese blog that I kept going a little longer, called “The Daily Cheddar”. This blog started out as a personal cheese log, documenting a new cheese every single day, but after a week, I had exhausted every cheese available from my neighborhood grocery: Cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack, Blue, American, Cream and Easy.

My entry on Easy Cheese lit a little fire, earning two (2) comments, both positive, or at least encouraging in the abstract. One was, “ha ha I used to live off this stuff in college,” and the other was, “I totally forgot about Easy Cheese!!!” My hard work was finally paying off and I was getting some recognition.

I started and abandoned six more cheese blogs before finally getting published in Cheese Bard Monthly, a literary magazine dedicated to cheese/literature lovers. My first piece for them was a poem called It’s Manchego, Not Manchengo, written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. The poem was a hit with their readers, so they commissioned more pieces from me, asking if I could do even longer form poetry about even rarer cheeses. The last piece I submitted to them was, at the time, what I considered my master work: an emotional thousand-word love letter to the stinkier variety of cheese, titled, Olfactory Daze.

Despite how much they appreciated my work, print media was on a downward trend, and the nice folks at Cheese Bard Monthly had to close up shop, and all before I could ever collect my fee.

Oh, son of a bitch, that’s right, they never even paid me!!! Ugh, now I’m mad about it all over again.

Around 2012, I moved to New York City with the intention of entering and winning the Annual Cheesemonger Invitational. This is basically the Olympics for the most dedicated of the artisanal cheese industry, where slicing the perfect quarter-pound wedge of Gruyere or spinning a giant wheel of brie on your index finger can net you $500 or more, plus a tote bag. I decided that this would be my ticket to foodie fame——if I won this, then I would be invited on podcasts and ham it up with other cheese industry icons and maybe everyone will discover and read my cheese blog. Everyone.

Well, shirt. I lost the Invitational five years in a row. However, I did reach the finals one year, as an alternate, when one of the finalists called in sick (yeah right, sure they were sick, that’s the oldest one in the book).

I spent every year in New York working for a different cheese shop, each one more rinky-dink than the last. Wedgey’s, Brooklyn Stink, The Bloomy Wheel, Goat & Sheep Are Friends, and finally, Pasture Valley Meadow Creek Farms, in Park Slope. At each of these places, I probably should have been focusing on my job, but instead I was using all my time to practice for the Invitational, and ruining numerous wheels in the process, all for naught.

After half a decade of coming up short of victory (and several nervous breakdowns, one where I began granny-tossing cheese curds into the mouths of reluctant subway riders, then demanding payment) my mind yearned for a new and kinder environment. I left New York for Los Angeles, CA, a utopian’s dystopia.

Once in Los Angeles, where I currently reside, I found a stable little job in the specialty cheese department of a corporate “organic” grocery. I make the same amount I was making twenty years ago with leaner benefits, but that doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to be around cheese. Now that I have all those dreams of fame behind me, I feel liberated enough to start this blog, where I just can be myself and talk about cheese, or be Cheese and talk about myself😂.

I hope you enjoy this blog. I will post cheese-related lists and blurbs plus stories from my years of experience, with a little commentary on the cheese industry at large mixed in. If there is anything you’d like me to comment on or blog about, feel free to drop me a line at cheesepeterson@protonmail.com.

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