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They call me the cheese-slinger.
About this time last year, I was poised for the international study abroad experience of a lifetime, but, first, I became a cheesemonger. A cheesemonger is exactly what it sounds like—a monger of cheese. For two weeks, I peddled over 200 types of cheese in a Parisian-style “fromagerie,” except without any of the glamour of being young and fancy-free in Europe. Instead, I was young and poor in a bland, upper-middle class suburb, and I needed a lot of cash fast.
If all went according to plan (and it ultimately didn't; but that's another tale), I was going to be living it up in a foreign country for five months with every joy and benefit, save for the fact that I could not legally work. I had a scholarship and small stipend for food, but I was responsible for all other expenses. That meant I had to spend as many hours working as I could right up until my very last moment in the United States. The other catch was that I had to have the money deposited in my bank account before I left. After all, how was I going to access the checks sitting in my P.O. box if I was thousands of miles away? I couldn't and, thus, the hustling began.
I hit the pavement with a fury one day late last fall, wearing my Goodwill blazer and dollar store eyeliner. I waved my resume in a recycled folder and donned my brightest smile. I was twenty-four years old and had never worked in a restaurant or done retail. My resume, despite all the awards and publications, meant nothing. I had always written, tutored, photographed, and dabbled in other creative things that usually paid well but almost never immediately. I needed something where I'd walk home with a pocket full of bills at the end of the night or at least was guaranteed a check every two weeks, instead of possibly in 30 days.
I marched into places that weren't hiring and filled out paperwork I knew nobody would ever read. Three businesses later, I was trudging down the sidewalk when I noticed a 'Now Hiring' sign in the window of a cheese and wine shop.
I was lucky enough to stay with a French family one summer in college. I was also wise enough to actually pay attention to what they fed me. Because of that—and really only because of that—I am smarter than the Average Bear when it comes to cheese. Yet, as I stood there tugging on my threadbare sleeve, I couldn't get past the wine part. 'Dammit,' I mumbled, 'If only I drank in college.'
I am a lightweight, a prude, a weirdo, whatever you'd like to call me because not only had I never flipped burgers or folded sweaters on a shop floor before, I had a drop's worth of knowledge about wine. While I very good at pronouncing the French and Italian names of the wine world, I had no friggin' idea how Bordeaux tasted any different from other red wines. I thought I was fortunate enough to even know Bordeaux was red. I couldn't have named a “dry” wine if my life depended on it.
And in that moment, my life kind of did depend upon it, but here's the thing: I'm really good at bullshitting. I can talk just about anyone into or out of anything, even when I have no expertise on the matter. So I cleared my throat, puffed out my chest, and walked into that shop like a star sommelier. Sometimes you gotta walk the walk.
“Hello,” I squeaked over the counter. The shop was much busier than I had anticipated. That was because it was also a restaurant, bustling with folks hungry for cheesy entrees. Holiday displays crowded the tiny floor, pushing me practically rib-to-rib with the older, wealthier patrons surrounding me. “Hi,” I said, this time louder. I locked eyes with the manager.
Before I knew it, I was talking about how I'd spent a summer in France and my host mother offered me a cheese plate every day, usually with a homemade apricot pie, right before discussing French politics and Michael Jackson's recent death. I waxed poetic about rinds, pretending that I could never go back to Kraft Singles after that LIFE-CHANGING CULINARY ADVENTURE. The manager was nodding along, pleased. Ka-ching.
Until, of course, she asked what I knew about wine and, out of steam, I trailed off, revealing my ignorance. I quickly recovered with an earnest plea: “I'm a fast learner!”
The manager's face lit up. She said she would call me in for an interview with the store director as soon as she could. I shook her hand almost until it fell off her wrist, slipped her my resume, and headed out the door for a paid gig I had that afternoon.
Less than 24 hours later, I was telling the same story about the six weeks I'd spent with my host family, laughing and charming my way into a job that terrified me. Within a week, I'd have to be able to correctly identify about ten times as many cheeses I previously knew existed. Not only that, but I'd have to be able to recommend cheese and wine pairings that didn't make people spit. And I'd have to be able to correctly wrap and label cheeses for display in the counter AND organize wine bottles according to type on the floor. And I had to know something about overpriced fruits, charcuterie, and chocolates. And learn how to use a cash register. And their database.
Okay, right, #FirstWorldProblems. The cry of the overeducated, underemployed millennial. It was time to pay my dues, especially if it meant achieving a bigger dream. Apart from writing freelance articles, teaching children creative writing, and doing a little bit of television production, I was going to learn the fine art of slinging and wrapping cheese. All in the name of fattening up my bank account.
“This is what grown-ups do,” I reassured myself.
On my first day of work, I tasted dozens of cheese, from Camembert, a creamy cow's milk cheese, to Dubliner, a buttery, aged cheddar. Even if I was already familiar with a cheese, I was expected to cut or shave off a bit and try it. The same went for wine: glug, glug, glug. While many people might find that fun, it was meh for me. I'm not a huge fan of drinking. I don't like the way it makes me feel. Even a tad usually makes me queasy. Too bad, buster. Bottoms up.
As the day went on, I quickly realized that most people don't know crap about food. Even in a well-to-do community, people eat microwave dinners. They order take-out. They don't know how to pronounce foreign names (I swear that there's only one 'n' in the word 'Manchego.') They're comfortable with their steak and potatoes. You don't have to be a foodie to come across as an expert if your average customer is okay scarfing down Cheez Whiz on Ritz crackers. You just have to know simple stuff, like Gouda is Dutch and this herb is rosemary. Memorize a handful of facts and people will eat out of your hands if you don't give them a sample on wax paper first.
Basically, I was trained to B.S. on a higher level than I did when I first asked for a job. That's probably why the fromagerie hired me: They could sniff the B.S. on my breath as soon as I opened my mouth. When people walked into the store, overwhelmed and slightly insecure, it was my job to put them at ease with cheese. Mimolette, despite what the FDA says about its mite content, can make anyone melt.
Day in and day out, I carted cheese from the freezer to the case; wrote cutesy signs for cheeses with cutesy names like Purple Haze and Ewephoria; and pressured people into trying a bite of mozzarella di bufala (the heavier my Italian accent on that one, the more likely people were to partake.) By far the hardest thing I had to do was cut precise measurements of hard cheeses from massive cheese wheels with a big-ass rocker knife. Though I could pretty easily eye a soft cheese like St. Angel Triple-Crème and cut 0.75 of a pound almost exactly, accomplishing the same for parmesan or pecorino was a much harder feat. It was also hard going home stinking of cheese, knowing I still had a story to write.
What would've been harder, however, was not taking a chance at all and proving to myself that I could pick up something quickly in times of desperation. It reminded me that, if necessary, I could probably find some honorable illegal work in the country where I was headed, even in a field where I had no prior experience and even if 'honorable illegal' sounds like an oxymoron. It also taught me that I never, ever want to be a cheesemonger again, at least not professionally. But I do get a vague sense of satisfaction in the dairy aisle of the supermarket these days. I know that Babybel isn't even close to the good stuff.