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Memories of a Childhood Selling Cheese

What I learned watching my dad become a smalltime cheesemonger at farmer’s markets in the 1970s, way before “artisanal” was part of anyone’s vocabulary.

Illustration: Michael Sloan

I went to the Northfield Farmers’ Market the other day. I know—stop the presses, right? But actually it was a pretty big deal for me because it’s the place where I grew up. I started working at a cheese stand there when I was nine. Some kids played catch with their fathers or grew close casting fishing lines into quiet ponds. Not me. My dad and I bonded as I added up numbers in pencil on a brown paper bag while he cut, weighed, and wrapped cheese from Wisconsin.

He hadn’t always been a cheese seller. Before he entered that world, my dad, Omer Reese, was the music director at Ridgewood High School in the northwestern suburb of Norridge. Then suddenly he was laid off. The school had declining enrollment, so music was cut. He tried to cobble together a few part-time teaching jobs. He directed his church’s choir and even worked as a janitor to supplement his dwindling teaching income. But it was over.

So my dad decided to do something he’d been doing on the side: sell cheese. For years, he’d been bringing back to Chicago handcrafted cheese from the tiny towns of Wisconsin—Dodgeville, Verona, and Fennimore. Perhaps he thought, Hey, my friends like this cheese. I’ll just start a business and it’ll be huge.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Every Saturday morning, rain or shine, we’d rise before dawn and cram into his small Toyota station wagon, literally packed to the roof with cheese. Driving from Evanston, we would arrive at the lawn where Northfield Bowl long ago used to be, unfold our rinky-dink table, put the cheese out, and immediately be swarmed by customers who jostled into a line as we tried to get ready for the day.

I sat in a canvas folding chair at the end of the table. My dad weighed the cheese on a rusty scale, priced it in his head, and then told me the costs, which I totaled on a paper bag. We never quite figured out a good workspace for me: My wobbly setup was a few cheddar boxes stacked on top of each other, my cash box another paper bag. (I should have gotten a sense of my dad’s business acumen from the fact that it took about five years to get an actual metal cash box.) But he always kept things light and fun—the customers left with bags full of (absurdly underpriced) cheese and smiles on their faces.

Back then, in the late 1970s, the Northfield market sold the basics: corn, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli. The most exotic items were our cheeses and the crumbling, mediocre cookies and cupcakes made by a guy we called the No-Butter Baker. Organic? I never heard that word uttered once.

But the market kept growing, and our lines got longer. A former music teacher and a lone preteen didn’t exactly mesh with the stoic, weathered farmers who drove hours to sell their corn, but we still shared an unspoken bond. During the market, I’d run among the stands, frantically trying to get singles for a $5 bill. Bunny, the vegetable-selling redhead with the lusty laugh, would hustle over to borrow paper bags. And then there was the stand with the farmer’s daughters: four gorgeous blondes. (That axiom about farmers’ beautiful progeny? Brother, that ain’t no myth.)

At the end of the day, we’d gather by Larry’s truck and swap stories about the awful customers, the kids who grabbed stuff with their booger-crusted fingers, the woman who ordered “charp sheddar.” Once in a while, someone would crack open a beer.

Over the years, I graduated to waiting on customers. I learned how to cut the fragile wheel of blue cheese so the slices didn’t break into bits. We finally got a metal cash box. Eventually, I was dispatched to the market in Wilmette, a few miles east. I found several tricks boosted my sales: Posting a sign helped, as did putting out free samples. After 20 summers, I moved on—got married and left the farmers’ markets behind. My dad sold his business (he restarted Wisconsin Artisan Cheese years later—that’s a whole other story). And the markets, like us, changed, too.

Which brings me back to my recent trip to the Northfield Farmers’ Market. It still felt bucolic—it was a beautiful, cloudless day, the vendors spread out on a field of freshly cut grass, a young couple harmonizing to Oasis’s “Wonderwall” on acoustic guitar. There were vegetable stalls but also many sellers of premade goods, such as gluten-free brownies, gourmet lollipops (?), and organic coconut oil (??). The crowd seemed indifferent, with multitudes of cyclists in far-too-revealing Lycra.

But being there also made me think about the courage my dad showed and the disappointment he kept inside. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to go from changing students’ lives to working at that market every week, year after year. Having lost jobs a few times, I never had the courage to start anew and begin a business from scratch. That’s no small thing.

I also realized how ahead of the curve he was. He embraced the idea of artisanal cheese decades before it became Artisanal Cheese. He crafted his own recipes, working with cheese makers to add chipotle peppers long before anyone knew what they were. He had the brilliant idea to smoke Gouda over burning apple branches.

So maybe it was worth it. All the sweat and the ripped paper bags and the pungent smell of blue cheese that stays in your nose for days—maybe that’s what happens when you do what you have to do. And maybe it’s OK that my dad wasn’t a businessman. He provided for his family and held on to his integrity. Maybe that’s enough.

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