A Workplace Romance

oh cheese plate
I open the door to my gym locker and am overwhelmed by a cheese-y odor. But I'm not disgusted. I'm not grossed out. I'm excited and I'm hungry. Because the culprit is none of the usual locker room olfactory offenders. My locker smells like cheese, because of the carefully wrapped bundle given to me earlier in the day by a generous co-worker: a carefully wrapped bundle of cheese.

In my workplace, there is a widespread love affair with all things gastronomic and the exchange of food and foodstuffs is frequent and delightful. I've been brought cupcakes and lemon bars, kosher salt and tomato paste, nopalitos that made me a cactus lover and frozen blocks of bolognese that kept me well-fed for days.

One coworker has fallen in love with a cheese shop on Montana in Santa Monica. She's been describing her finds to me and, possibly after noticing the puddle of drool collecting at my feet as she spoke, she offered to bring me a sample. Her bundle contained three wedges: a cave-aged sheep milk cheese called Marisa, after the cheese maker's daughter; a Spanish cow milk cheese called Mahon; and another cow milk cheese, this one out of Switzerland, with a brined and herb-washed rind.

This gift called for two things: a round of profuse and nearly teary Thank Yous, and a well-appointed cheese plate. I remember someone saying that a good cheese plate has the following: something old, something new, something goat, something blue. It's a cute phrase, easy enough to remember, and if you are selecting your own cheeses, it's probably a helpful adage. If you are plating cheeses that have fallen into your life, I wouldn't be such a stickler. I did pick up a few accouterments: a baguette, Marcona almonds and dried cranberries.

Marcona almonds are lightly fried in oil and generously salted. Nuts are a food I've had to learn to enjoy, but the learning curve with marcona almonds was nonexistent. Their texture and roasty flavor make them a nice cheese counter-point. Similarly, the chewy texture and sweet flavor of the dried cranberries are complimentary to any selection of cheeses.

The last time I asked a friend to bring over some cheese, she upped the ante with apricot jam. I've seen quince paste on many a cheese plate, but hadn't considered a dollop of apricot jam could take its place. But the jam was a hit and the memory of it gave me an idea... my mom's neighbor in Lompoc makes strawberry-jalapeno jelly and I had a jar. Unlike many store-bought jellies, it isn't overly sweet. It's studded with nice, toothsome pieces of strawberry and a radiates a delightful jalapeno heat.

So I unearthed my jelly, sliced the baguette and corralled the cheeses onto a plate. I also grabbed pencil and papper to record my impressions of the cheese. And then I discovered I'm not very good at describing cheese. Possibly because it's hard to think clearly when you are eating something so delicious. The Mahon was like an especially grassy parmesan, with a parm-like crumble. The Scharfe Maxx was smooth in texture like a swiss cheese sans holes and had a reservoir of that stinky cheese essence that climbs up the back of your throat into your nose and an almost miso-like flavor. The Marisa was both crumbly and smooth, like the textural love child of the Mahon and Scharfe Maxx, but I had a hard time pinpointing a flavor. My sainted coworker included an informational card about the Marisa in her package and the card recommended I look for a hazelnut flavor... ah yes, hazelnut, hello.

I think of "umami", the fifth taste, in regard to traditional Japanese flavors. Probably because it's a concept Japanese in origin. Without a mouth full of Scharfe Maxx, it may not have occurred to me to taste umami in cheese. With a mouth full of Scharfe Maxx, I definitely got that protein-y umami.

After tasting each cheese on its on, I tried it on a slice of baguette smeared with hot strawberry jelly. The combination was kind to all the cheeses, but most especially the Marisa. It was nerdy and delightful to experiment with the flavors, to see how one would impact another.

Back when I poured coffee, a regular customer and I exchanged mixed CDs. He talked endless about The Replacements and I about Sleater-Kinney. So we both filled a disc with our separate obsessions and exchanged them. Turns out, I'm not wild about The Replacements and he, for reasons I will never understand, didn't love Sleater-Kinney. But, he said, it's kind of a beautiful thing that we shared something we think is important. On that, I agree with him.

Food is, of course, important, because we can't live without it. But it's also important, because it gives us a means to share, a way to affirm and reaffirm the bonds between us. I chafe under the label "foodie," because it strikes me as so solitary. What I truly love about food is the sense of community it breeds so effortlessly: turning coworkers into compatriots.

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