Stories from Summer Vacation: Kirsten Ronald Says “Cheese!”

This story from summer vacation comes our way from UT AMS doctoral student Kirsten Ronald:

This summer, with coursework finally behind me, I’m mostly reading for orals, which lately has meant long hours learning about trains and roads and race and gender and empire (Yes, I organized my reading thematically, because I’m neurotic like that).  But while reading books is cool and all, it doesn’t exactly fill the stomach, pay the rent, or provide much in the way of human interaction, so a few days a week I put on a hat and some non-slip shoes and go back to my previous life – as a cheesemonger.

I monged in DC before I came back to school, but the shop here in Austin puts the one in DC to shame.  Even in the summer, when the heat makes cheese hard to transport, we have upwards of 300 different kinds of cheese, ranging from local goat chevre and hand-made mozz to French Epoisses, Pyrenees Chabrin and (the very tasty) Tarentaise from Vermont.  And while one of the best parts of the job is tasting and sharing high-end cheeses, learning about and caring for them is pretty awesome, too.  Cheeses are living, breathing things, with their own needs, social order, and vocabulary.  They come from different animals, from different parts of the world, and from totally different cheese-making aesthetics and traditions.  And they all have to be treated with respect: blues, washed-rinds, bloomy-rinds, cheddars, tommes, alpine cheeses – they’re all made and aged differently, each likes slightly different temps and humidity, and all require careful handling and clean knives and hands to avoid cross-contamination of molds.  The specialized tools and processes of monging are fun too: cubers, cheese wires, graters, heat wrappers, knob-handled parm knives; the assembly-line of cutting, hand-wrapping, pricing, stocking; rotating commodities and brining olives; checking temps and culling products soon to go bad; and, of course, the guesswork of helping a customer figure out what cheese they got from you last time that was so good but they just can’t remember the name of it.  It’s like being a researcher, assembly-line worker, and detective all in one.

And, thanks to my incredibly knowledgeable fellow mongers and caseophiles, we are constantly getting in new cheeses to taste, learn about, and share with folks.  I really can’t think of a better complement to (and break from) the heady work of academia – and yes, that means that if you know where I work and you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by.  Just make sure you come on an empty stomach.

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