Inside the American Cheese Society Festival of Cheese
In mid-June, Eric, cheesemaker at Monroe Cheese Studio and number one son, emailed to say he was driving the Maine Cheese Guild‘s entries to the American Cheese Festival in Chicago at the end of July. If I wanted to come and help drive, my lodging and some food would be covered. I’m a sucker for a road trip and had nothing pressing on my plate, so I said, “Why not?” The fact that my wife Carol hates road trips and I hadn’t been on one since ought-four made the decision easy.
But to do this trip, I’d have to fly red-eye to Boston to hook up with Eric, then drive 16 hours to Chicago. Not attractive. Looking outside the U.S. box I found that I could fly 6:30am to 5pm to Montreal and have Eric pick me up there. That makes a shorter trip to Chicago and no red-eye. Now my juices were flowing with anticipation. Who knew what age 70 would bring.
The American Cheese Society Conference and Competition Awards. All I knew was that last year it was in Vermont and Eric won third prize for his Thistle Blue Cheese.
How big is it? Research told me that last year 1,209 cheeses and dairy products were entered involving 181 producers from 30 states and 3 Canadian provinces. It took 30 judges to determine the prizes. Wow. Eric sent me a form to volunteer for work setting up the Festival in exchange for a free apron and a ticket to the evening Festival tasting (worth $85). Who could pass that up?
We had four days in Chicago and while Eric attended the Conference, I took architectural tours, wandered in awe through the new Millennium Park and went to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. I love Chicago! SATURDAY brought Cheese Day, the penultimate day of our trip.
The ACS email said to report to the Volunteer Registration table at the Chicago Hilton ballroom at 10:30 on Saturday. I walked to the Hilton at ten and wandered around the huge Hilton lobby looking for the right place. At an ACS Registration Table they told me to go to the ballroom on the second floor.
When I walked into the Ballroom, tables were arrayed across the floor, arranged in combinations to make small, medium and large displays. Cheese carts were being wheeled in and placed by their tables. A tall woman with a microphone was making announcements of interest to all. Nobody paid any attention to me. Over to my right, I saw a table labeled Volunteer Registration. Nobody was there. The lady with the mike walked up and I said, “I’m a 10:30 volunteer.” She looked at another guy and said, “You two; there’s a cart with silver trays at the top of the ramp. It’s heavy, it’ll take both of you.” Then she looked at me and nodded. And so I was engaged.
The silver trays were to be used to display blue-ribbon winners in each cheese type. We distributed the 31 trays among the table groups, with a few left over, which I took back to the volunteer sign-in table. That seemed to be cheese central, since nearly all of the hundred or so folks in the ballroom were volunteers.
As I was looking for the mike-lady to direct me further, I saw two women with green Beehive tee shirts digging into a box of American Cheese Society aprons. Next to that was a box of ACS tee shirts with “Will Work for Cheese,” emblazoned on the back. I put on an apron and another woman handed me a ticket. I still hadn’t “signed-in,” but there didn’t seem to be a list or anything. Then the mike-lady showed up and directed the Beehive ladies to the Smoked Cheeses table display. She said to me, “You go with them.”
Me and the Beehive girls
Kari and Jeanette were from Beehive Cheese Company of Ogden, Utah and had worked the show last year, so they knew what they were doing.
Smoked Cheese table, ready to go
Tables arranged with risers, draped with white cloth and skirted with black fabric made up our display. To the side was a worktable and Jeanette scrambled around to get us cutting boards and knives.
Jeanette, remembering her experiences last year, appointed herself the go-getter. She found and brought stacks of white and black plates, flowers and other table decorations, available in various parts of the ballroom. During the day, the mike-lady would announce the arrival of fruits, nuts, breads, leafy greens and the like to be used to “fluff” our displays. At each announcement, Jeanette was off to bring back armloads of goodies. “First in is best dressed.”
At the outset, we had our white clothed display with a stack of name cards and a vertical cart with loafs and wheels of cheese. Each cheese had a number to correspond with the number on a name card. We took the wheels and loafs, found the card to match each and put them on the display. Certain cards were marked with blue, red or green marker to designate first, second or third place winners. Once the cart was empty and the display tables full, we commenced cutting. Each cheese was to have three or four pounds cut into cubes and displayed on a plate (or silver tray for winners).
There’s the wheel with its number and card, knife and cutting board, get on with it. I had my eye on a beautiful wheel of Marieke Smoked Cumin Gouda and couldn’t wait to get my knife into it. There was no training. Anyone who can handle a knife can cube cheese. As for display techniques, if we had a question or needed inspiration, we walked around and looked at what other folks were doing.
One down, many to go.
And so the day went. Cut a cheese, display the cheese on a plate and move to the next one. Some of our cheeses had odd shapes, which made for a new challenge.
Next to our tables, cheese sculptors were creating a Chicago skyline. This will be the centerpiece of the Festival. Good fun.
We were supposed to have our displays finished by three o’clock and we were ready. Imagine simultaneous cheese cubing going on at fifteen different tables, like ours, some larger, a few smaller. How many varieties of cheese is that, all starting with milk, salt, rennet and often another little something. The making of the cheeses started weeks or months before, all over the country. This coming-together, judging, awards and finally, the Festival of Cheese — the eating — was a massive effort of organization by the Society. Today, hundreds of volunteers were marshaled to prepare and present the cheeses for their ultimate purpose, nourishment and enjoyment… or to put it another way, enjoyment and nourishment. Pick up your plate, help yourself to some bread and cheese and a glass of wine or bottle of beer and let’s see if we can make the cheese disappear.
Soft Ripened Cheeses, including a Maine winner
What does the ballroom look like? According to the book, there were 22 cheeses, from the obvious cheddars, blues and soft ripened cheeses to smoked cheeses, marinated cheeses, cultured milk products and butters. These were arrayed by category on about 15 table displays. Within each cheese group, there were several types. On my Smoked Cheeses display, for example, there were Smoked Cow’s Milk, Goat’s Milk, Sheep’s Milk, Italian Styles and Cheddars. All in all, we could taste 92 different types of cheese. Fat chance. And each type had three prize-winners and many other entries. Drink stations were located in the corners of the ballroom with various white and red wines and beers to complement the cheeses. Breads, crackers, fruits and nuts were on the tables, both for decoration and consumption. In short, it was a cheese orgy for the eyes and palate.
Here’s my Smoked Cumin Gouda again, ready to eat
After about an hour of eating, drinking and schmoozing with cheesemakers, I was cheesed out. It was still early enough to walk it off on Michigan Avenue, and that’s just what we did.
What a trip, and well worth it. Next year the Festival of Cheese is in Austin, Texas; I think I’ll start planning.