And the Winners Are

It’s 7:30 am on a muggy July morning in Chicago, and I am standing outside of Union Station looking about confusedly and trying to hail a cab. The pool of seasoned veteran commuters streams off the suburban commuter trains and expertly eddies and flows around as I try to negotiate my way toward the taxi stand. I am already a bit late for my date with, no joke, about 1,000 cheeses. For this year’s competition, the American Cheese Society has picked me and my taste buds to judge the spread of cheesy comestibles brought forth from farms ranging from California to Maine. Gulping the rest of my coffee, and cursing myself for not leaving more time to walk to the judging site (I am going to be eating cheese for the next 7 to 8 hours after all) I jump in a cab and putter off west, towards an imagined Everest of dairy products.

The judging of this years’ competition is to be held at the plumbers’ union, an imposing fortress of a building located in the wholesale market district, a not-too-showy neighborhood west of downtown. The location of the judging was a much sweated over affair, as the size of the competition balloons a bit more with each passing year. The Chicago Hilton, where the rest of the conference is to be held, is a grand old edifice on South Michigan Avenue with ballrooms aplenty, but even they couldn’t stomach all that cheese. Being a union town, Chicago is blessed with many large, ornate buildings for the congregation of the brothers and sisters of the trades. However, as far as I could fathom from the Plumbers’ Union, nowadays these grand pieces of architecture are used mainly for the collection of member dues and perhaps the occasional polka dance party in their grand auditoriums.

The cab glides to a halt out front, and I make my way around the building to the loading dock, guided by American Cheese Society signs hastily scotch taped to the windows of the main entrance. As I amble around, following the Xeroxed paper trail, I am greeted with a hearty good morning by a random man on his way to work, and am reminded of why I love the mid-west the way that I do. I also wonder what these plumbers could possibly be thinking as they glimpse the signs announcing the existence of a cheese competition in their midst on their way in to take care of union business. Would they write it off as some sort of practical joke, perhaps played on them by their brothers in the local 130? I for one find it irresistibly funny that the judging should be held there, in a temple to the digestive mechanisms of the city which by association is linked to the digestive system of every cheeser, which over the course of the next 48 hours might be subjected to any number of, ahem, inconsistencies.

The staging area out back is abuzz with cheese professionals, culinary students, and cheese dorks come to graciously donate their time to help out with the judging. (This is no disparaging remark, by the way. I unequivocally count myself among the legions of cheese dorks out there in the world.) Three portable refrigeration units the size of shipping containers are humming away, filled to the gills with over 1,100 cheeses, yogurts, butters, and just about every other dairy product you could imagine. The exteriors of the coolers are plastered with poster-sized lists of cheeses written in good old-fashioned permanent marker, encrypted in a code legible only to the ACS team that composed it. I would challenge any Pentagon sleuth to try their luck at dissembling the jumble of letters and numbers representing so many butters, triple crèmes, swiss cheeses, cheddars. Over the course of the next two days, it will be up to the 30 or so judges assembled from the world over to whittle those cheeses down to a handful of blue ribbon winners, and finally to one single cheese that will receive ultimate accolade of Best in Show.

Despite all my scurrying around and incompetence at hailing cabs in Chicago, I have somehow managed to arrive early, and am ushered inside to wait for the other judges to arrive on the shuttle bus from the hotel. I sit down next to another early bird, a kind woman from Dallas named Helen who, like me, is a first time cheese judge, but a seasoned veteran in other kinds of food judging, from cakes to pies to other baked goods regularly featured at county fairs. She advises me to eat a good breakfast, which registers as a stark contrast to my own plan, an inventive combination of fasting, fiendish water drinking, and shameless prayers and entreaties to the cheese gods for extra intestinal fortitude. Her logic, which was echoed by the other judges, was to fill up so that you aren’t tempted to really eat the cheese, rather just taste it. Glancing out into the grand salmon-colored auditorium, I note that the judging tables are topped with small arsenals of paper plates, spoons, and plastic buckets, which to my chagrin Helen informs me are in fact spittoons. I hadn’t really pondered this option, the spitting out of cheese (what a terrible waste!) but it is apparently common practice for those accustomed to judging ridiculous numbers of cheeses in uncommonly short periods of time.

Slowly the breakfast area begins to fill up with judges as the bus arrives from the Hilton. I spot some of the usual cast of characters, and begin to get a little bit nervous about the business of eating all this cheese. After all, who could have taste buds on par with the likes of Bill ‘walks-on-water’ Wendorf, a UW dairy science guru in his sixties, who in a gesture of sheer tenacity, is drinking milk for breakfast before the orgy of cheese even begins? And in the opposite corner there’s Steve Jenkins, another personal cheese hero of mine, who has run the cheese counter at Fairway for the past twenty-odd years at Fairway with a fierce and unwavering dedication to delicious dairy. I finish my egg and sausage sandwich (thankfully, the caterers omitted the ever-present third ingredient) with butterflies in my tummy and head out to the main hall to see whom my judging partner will be.

The auditorium of Journeyman Plumbers’ Union looks a lot like a high school gymnasium, sans the basketball hoops and flags announcing the laurels of sports teams in years past. There is a stage up front, and rows of tables set up for the judging flanked by red and white curtained screens that remind me of a polling place on election day. The environment is cheerful but serious as people bustle around, wheeling speed carts laden with racks of cheese to all the tables. A command central of computers, scanners, and copy machines, cords all a-jumble, backs up to the stage, ready to import the litany of scores and other information generated during the judging. Off to one side, there is a heap of white lab coats on a tabletop, which are to be our official uniforms for the next 48 hours of cheese immersion. I don a lab coat, stick a nametag on it, and take my spot at table 15.

Soon enough, a pleasant white-haired gentleman named Bill approaches and announces that he will be my co-judge for the duration of the competition. He looks to be in his late sixties or early seventies, trim and fit as a fiddle after a life of tasting and grading cheese and butter for the state of Wisconsin. ‘Eat your heart out, cholesterol-phobes!’ I think to myself as he settles into the seat next to me. In the auditorium, the air conditioning is blasting, and half to combat the cold, half to show off just how dang cool he is, Bill pulls a white cap out of his bag emblazoned with the words ‘Wisconsin World Cheese Championship 2005’ and plops it down on his balding head. Once again, I am faced with my cheese green-ness in the ranks of lifers such as these. Lucky for me, Bill is a generous and kind soul, who over the next two days ends up teaching me much about the cheese business: from the changes in cheese production methods over the course of his life to how to tell the difference between a good and bad eye in a wheel of Swiss cheese.

We take a look at the list of categories we are to judge for the day, and my eye skips down almost immediately to the line that reads ‘cheeses with pepper.’ Oh agony and woe! I was forewarned by a friend of mine who had been a judge in years past that at the American Cheese Society, that was how the cookie crumbled. You are assigned some lovely and delicious categories, and then you get some of the dregs like flavored cheese. Or worse, low fat cheese. (I happened to get both of those categories… call it beginners’ luck!) I guess it’s just like the rest of life… if it were all roses and triple crèmes all the time, we’d just get bored and freak out. Or morbidly obese, as it were.

So, Bill and I spend the morning slogging through a veritable zoo of cheeses, from the silky and refined triple crèmes, to bread cheeses (a new one to me… this kind of cheese is literally a slab that you can put on the grill and eat like a chicken wing) to pepper cheeses (I reiterate, yuck), and fresh goat cheeses. For each cheese, we taste and contemplate… Bill always spits his cheese out into the little spittoon, while I reserve that insult only for the lowliest of the pepper cheese. Then we compare notes, and finally give it a score along with some helpful comments to the cheese maker. Bill being the dairy science dude that he is, points out the technical flaws, while my job, much more fun in my opinion, is to award points for positive attributes found in the cheese.

And so it goes, through the afternoon and then starts up again the next day at 8:00 am sharp. The American Cheese Society doesn’t mess around. And they have good reason not to, because there’s a lot of cheese to be tasted. After the morning round of tasting on the second day, all the judges are left to roam around for an hour or so while the team of volunteers and cheese society intelligentsia assemble what amounts to a bonus sudden death round of cheese judging: the Best in Show showdown.

Please take a moment to pause and imagine this… you’ve been eating cheese for nearly 24 hours straight. You’re trying to nibble the occasional cracker, pineapple, lettuce leaf, anything that doesn’t look like dairy and chugging water (or coke) like a novice nomad in the Sahara. You’re liberated for an hour of sunshine, napping or strolling around as you please, and then you are summoned to the real contest. A couple of deep breaths and side stretches, and we’re back to the races.

Now the blue ribbon winners of all the categories (somewhere between 80 and 90, I refused to count…) are splayed out like so many pieces of meat on the judging tables. This is the cheese judges’ moment of truth. Will everyone make it, I wondered? I for one was starting to feel a little cheese worn and thirsty. I took a quick ocular survey and appraised the looks on my colleagues’ faces. ‘Walks on water’ Wendorf didn’t blink an eyelid before digging in, so far as I could tell. David Lockwood, a veteran cheese judge who works with Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, began the task with an easy zeal, wandering from table to table and munching and chatting as he went. Some folks had a strategy (save the flavored ones for last! Start out with butter and crème fraiche!) while others just dove right in, knowing that when it came right down to it, there were 80 odd cheeses to taste and it would be ridiculous any way you sliced it.

I tried to subscribe to the latter strategy, but was bamboozled by a cumin-laden piece of gouda somewhere around table 7. After that, all bets were off. I tore around the tables, making notes in my little notebook and making frequent trips to the garbage can to spit out the morsels of cheese once I got a read on the flavor. I am not proud of this. The spitting out of cheese. But you must understand, at a certain point, it simply must be done. Wine makers and consumers alike spit during tastings or else they would end up stone drunk. From the slight headache I was starting to develop, I feared what might become of me if I actually ingested all that cheese. Images of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory flashed through my head. If Violet Beauregarde ate the blueberry candy and burst, surely I was on my way to a dismal fate.

But the toughest part of the entire process was yet to come… having to choose a winner! All jokes about pepper and cumin cheese aside, the array of cheese up for offer on that day was truly astounding, and there were many candidates that I would have loved to award Best in Show. Coming into the judging, I figured that at the end of the day the choice would be obvious, that there would be one shining knight of a cheese that would out-cheese all the rest. But there wasn’t. There was delicious goat butter, succulent sour crème fraiche, mushroomy camembert-style cheeses, rustic clothbound goat cheddars, caramelized and crumbly cows’ milk cheeses, cheese rubbed with coffee grounds, and tangy, citrusy fresh sheep cheese.

In the end, and I can say this now that the official results are out, the winner was a gallant goat cheddar from Carr Valley Cheese in Wisconsin. The cheese was a sight to behold. Burly and bandaged, the cheese weighed in at about 40 pounds, the true size to be called a cheddar. (more cheese trivia I learned thanks to Bill) It was musky, sweet and just plain wonderful. A week later, I can still remember what it tasted like, and how the rich and creamy paste (cheese dork word for the interior of the cheese) lingered and sang a little ditty about goats as it coated my palate. As a cheese ages, its flavors coalesce and concentrate, revealing more of their flavor with each potent little tidbit.

My hat goes off though, to all the cheese makers and all the folks who organized the astronomical feat that is the cheese judging. After more than a week of gathering cheeses shipped to the conference, recording their provenance, labelling the samples, and making sure they were coddled along to perfection, all we judges had to do was show up an eat! I hope to go back next year, cheese trier in hand, and taste the bounty of cheeses that are changing the face of American cheese. And the self-imposed cheese vacation that I planned post-conference didn’t last too long… come Saturday, fresh off the plane and back at my shop, I found myself munching as delightedly as ever. Some habits just die hard.

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One thought on “And the Winners Are

  1. Saxelby fans: Our girl acquitted herself marvelously. I know; I was there. She is held in very high esteem by all of us. And her sister’s a dish, too.

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