Life on Aisle 2: This is What Plan C Looks Like, Episode 23, An All Too Familiar Feeling
This blog parses the changes in my middle age–how I went from working as a columnist at a major daily newspaper and a leading cheesemonger to being a beer buyer at a fancy grocery store–and how I maintain hope of finding happiness. It’s underpinned by an element of confusion fatigue, frustration fatigue and fatigue fatigue, but it’s about life and downward mobility in New York City 2018 and 2019, which is never dull.
Earlier this year, I applied for a Google Podcast Creator grant in tandem with a young French music journalist that I met while shopping for a new living situation in late 2018. She brought great energy, enthusiasm and connections to the project. For me, I’ve rolled enough rocks up a hill only to see them go tumbling back down, that her involvement kept my usual Sisyphean pessimism from setting in.
We differed on a key aspect of the proposal, however. She thought it should be about music and cheese, and I thought it should be about music and politics. From her French perspective, cheese was underappreciated in America, and I couldn’t agree more. But from my former cheesemonger’s perspective, the approach to cheese was a little more dire. I love cheese but I fear for it too. The best cheeses come from small dairy farms and small dairy farms like small farms in general are getting clobbered by the dual forces of global capital concentration and climate crisis. I feared that a podcast on cheese would be a recurring, painful obituary.
I thought about that this week when the news hit that the wonderful Vermont cheesemakers Consider Bardwell would be shutting down. They had been in the news about a month earlier for a product recall due to fears of a potential listeria presence, and in the aftermath, they determined that it simply wasn’t economically feasible to continue making cheese.
This isn’t surprising and that’s the saddest element of it all. Nobody goes into cheesemaking to make lots of money. It’s a passion project abetted by skin of your teeth profits. The difference between success and failure is a very thin line, and it’s mirrored by the struggles of retailers in New York where Lucy’s Whey has vanished and both Saxelby Cheesemongers and Malt and Mold have left the once funky and now quite tony Lower East Side.
Even though it had only been around since 2004, Consider Bardwell felt like an institution. Cheeses like Rupert, Manchester and their signature Dorset were on the short list of many New York City cheesemongers. They were cheeses that were unusually sophisticated. They had subtle distinctive flavors. They seemed well suited for cheese plates and unsuited for sandwiches or macaroni and cheese. They made cheese lovers cheeses.
I vividly recall the first time I had their cheeses. It was 2004, and I was working at Bedford Cheese Shop when a shipment arrived. It was anticipated by the bosses and a hush practically came over the shop as the cheeses were unpacked. A wheel was cut, grassy buttery flavors were savored. As customers came in, samples were given. A half wheel was sold in quarter and half pound increments before it was rewrapped. During those heady days it was an oft repeated scene. Arrivals from Twig Farm, Andante, and Capriole in America, Rolf Beeler, Casa Madaio and Neal’s Yard Diary from abroad were events, moments to quiet one’s mind and alert the senses.
The news of their closure hit on Thursday as I was buying cheeses for a class that night at the 92nd St. Y. When Andrew, the Cheesemonger at Formaggio Essex conveyed the news, there was a depressing familiarity to the feeling. It was from journalism, and it felt the same way it did talking to others in the business when ESPN of the New York Daily News or Buzzfeed or whatever announced significant layoffs. It was the feeling that this once great place to be professionally wasn’t so great anymore and might never be viable again. As I wandered into the Manhattan sunset, shoulders slumped ever so slightly, I reminded myself that this is why I’m in the craft beer business. Breweries are certainly not immune to the vagaries of contemporary capitalism, but the closure of one doesn’t feel like a death knell of a sector.
In the end, we didn’t get our grant or even make the finals as I had the previous year for a proposal built around this blog. I suspect that my colleague’s idea might have been more suitable to Google’s interest. It was more whimsical, less conventional. But I know the story of my life, and when I tell it, I’d like to focus on the episodes of resilience and triumph, not tragedy.
Martin Johnson is a freelance writer whose work on music, sports and cinema has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsday, New York, Vogue, Rolling Stone, The Root, Slate, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications and websites. He also blogs at Rotations, and he can be contacted at email@example.com.