Diana Hamilton’s Memoir of the Young Writer as Cheesemonger
A Series on the Senses: Taste
A Series on the Senses: Taste
Touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell – these are the five traditional senses. In this specially commissioned portfolio, five writers – Chloe Aridjis, Fernando A. Flores, Diana Hamilton, Alexandra Kleeman and Madeleine Thien – complicate our individual and shared experiences of these ‘outward wits’, as they were once known, in pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. They do not limit themselves to any one sense; instead, they draw on our ‘inward wits’, which the 16th-century British poet Stephen Hawes, in his ‘The Pastime of Pleasure’ (1509), identified as common sense, imagination, fantasy, instinct and memory.
My future boss slapped about 200 grams of her foulest-smelling cheese onto a piece of rosemary bread, handed it to me and told me to eat. She watched me chew. I was looking blankly at the Coffee Shop on New York’s Union Square West, where, her husband explained, aspiring models ineffectively waited tables; he was sure I would recognize it from Sex and the City. I didn’t recognize the cafe, but the cheese’s smell was familiar, reminiscent of the floor of the crawlspace hay mazes that had recently offered me opportunities for Indiana make outs. It was my first experience of the barn itself on the tongue, though, and it was A LOT – especially given the couple’s mildly erotic decision to watch me eat. I finished it quickly, and it gave me the impression my taste buds had been displaced: the sensation lingered somewhere in the middle of my forehead. ‘It’s great,’ I explained.
I’d passed the interview. This was, for them, a surprise; all they knew about me was that, aged 18, I’d just moved to New York from the Midwest, where ‘no one has taste’, the boss’s husband helpfully clarified. They also knew I was willing to work 11-hour shifts for US$88 per day with no breaks, so class couldn’t clarify my ability to consume luxury mould. ‘You’ll find the cheddar insufficiently salty,’ he warned me, since ‘you’ve probably only had Velveeta.’ He was right about my cheese CV, but wrong about my pleasure. I put a large slab of said unsalted cheddar into my mouth to prevent sass, which gave him a chance to explain their cows’ happy lives. (I later learned they bought this cheddar from Amish farmers in Pennsylvania, selling it at the farmer’s market for three times the purchase price.) The next step was to take a bus to Vernon, where I helped shove a new-born bull, destined to become expensive veal, into a wheelbarrow.
Cheese-selling was a frustrating job for a young writer. I was forced to develop descriptive language for an aesthetic event without recourse to relevant experience, since, beyond the overpriced cheddar, the raw cheeses were all of the shopkeepers’ own creation, and the cows’ relative freedom of movement let the unpasteurized milk take different forms depending on what they’d been eating around the development of any given wheel. I hadn’t tasted any of the extant, external cheeses to which they might be likened, so I relied on sentences like: ‘This wheel of Jean-Louis’ (a cheese they’d named after chef Jean-Louis Palladin) ‘is a bit grassier than usual, as the cows got into a patch of garlic.’ The customer would hand me US$8 for a carefully packaged slice, which they’d then eagerly feed to some beautiful dog.
I was given a crib sheet, which should have helped. I could not bring myself to say things like: ‘The Frolic pairs well with guava paste,’ though – a claim I had no evidence to back up. ‘This cheese is firm, but if you slice it thin, it melts on the tongue into a woody nut paste,’ I’d unhelpfully offer. ‘I hear it’s like Swiss.’ When the chef from Clinton Street Baking Company would ask for recommended wine pairings, I’d explain that I was most familiar with the tastes of Carlo Rossi and the blood of Christ. Quickly, I found that the Drum – my personal favourite, as no wheel tasted alike, pissing off a certain set enough to give me pleasure, and which would sometimes come apart to reveal a cream layer just under the rind, though mostly it took the form of some acidic flake – tasted rancid if washed down with apple cider. Customers trusted me more when I told them this, and I learned to replace descriptions with secrets, inviting tasters to join me in pretension.
My co-worker, Zack, was more generous with words, and he had a loyal set of middle-aged women who would opt to come back later if he was occupied. He was so good at it, in fact, that he got them to describe in his stead; one, apparently fresh from a blow-out, leaned across the cheese cases to growl: ‘This cheese tastes like sex. That’s how you should describe it. I think about you every time I eat it.’ He blushed. When the market closed that day, the neighbouring wine stand gave us their remaining samples. We drank half in the park, the other half later, in my twin-sized bed back in the dorms. His skin was sour with cheese residue, but his sweat had at least salted it.
Main image: Vincenzo Campi, The Ricotta Eaters, c.1580, oil on canvas, 77 × 89 cm. Courtesy: Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon and HIP/Art Resource, New York