The subtitle of Rainbow Grocery cheesemonger Gordon “Zola” Edgar’s new memoir (supertitled Cheesemonger, appropriately enough) would be enough for me to count the book a success; “Life on the wedge.” Ha! See, right there, he had me ready to head out to his Omnivore Books reading (Sat/3) fangirl style, washed rind Taleggio in hand, hounding for an autograph. Luckily, the rest of his book is pretty good too.
Where Cheesemonger triumphs is its accessibility. Edgar covers a lot of ground within its pages -- Bay area agricultural/urban history, the ins and outs and importance of worker collectives, food justice, and of course, the art and science that is cheese. But it is all tied together with that rare liberal ethos that is both positive, and commonsensical.
A word about those first three topics. Edgar’s tome ties how we eat to how we live to how our world works, coherently and colorfully enough that it stays interesting even to the casual reader. Cheesemakers, unlike produce farmers or vintners, have yet to really have their day in the sustainable food mania's sun. Here in Cheesemonger, we get a clear picture of how factory produced cheese differs from that which is made from the milk of grass-fed cows and handcrafted by sustainable methodologies- and an explanation of why many dairy farmers have been forced to turn to mass production methods. Edgar utilizes his middle-man status at Rainbow's worker collective in the book to neatly connect the latter with the stomachs and wallets of SF's working Joes. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dillemma functions similarly -- but Pollan’s got nothing on Edgar’s encyclopedic knowledge of the most delicious of all foods.
Ah, cheese. On my journalist’s salary, most of the cheese I’m eating these days ranges between the gold standard “block” cheddar and whatever brie I can swipe off of art reception buffet tables, so this book’s vivid descriptions of handcrafted Telemes and Sainte-Maure de Touraines were awe inspiring. I now have a grocery list the length of one of my legs, full of fancy cheeses to try (thanks for that, Gordon).
I kid, because Edgar does a great job of acknowledging how fine cheese's price tag can keep out of the mouths of most Americans. "When American foodies mock other Americans for not appreciating fine cheese, they should remember that the US equivalent to French Bried is a forty-pound block of commodity Cheddar," he writes.
So milk thistle coagulated Serra de Estrela doesn't often make it's oozy, pungent way into your grocery basket- Cheesemonger still makes for great food porn. Edgar breaks down how cheeses are made, gives helpful information on basic categories, explains what makes a rind and why the hell cheese is aged in caves, and perhaps most importantly, what to look out for when you do decide to splurge on a wedge (tip: stay away from rBGH hormone). I learned things about how the dairy industry works that every milk-and-cheese consumer should know -- particularly about our government’s regulations and how ridiculous allocations of subsidies affect the food that’s available on our shelves. As a self-identified "cheese punk," Edgar convinces you that to try the raw milk, the stinky, the smaller portions of local, expensive stuff- when you can afford it, of course, is to fight the man's influence over the standardization and control of our larders.
Now that is tasty radicalism. And now, pass the Roquefort.
Sat/3 3 p.m., free
3885A Cesar Chavez, SF
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