I am sitting next to two men at a coffee shop, trying to block out the sounds of conversations around me in order to concentrate on some writing. And then I hear the last bit of this man’s sentence in which he says Certified Cheese Professional Program and my concentration is shot. Huh? What? There’s a Certified Cheese Professional Program? A slew of questions enter my mind. How can you be certified in cheese? Why would you want to be certified in cheese? How is it that I’m thirty years old and have never thought about the fact that there is some huge community of cheese-loving-folks out there who decided to create a professional certification in cheese program? And, I’ve lived in the Midwest for over seven years now. How is it that I’ve never even heard the phrase “Certified Cheese Professional” before? And while I’m at this coffee shop trying to tune out all of the other patron’s conversations in order to work on the odious amount of writing I have to do to meet the deadlines that are tomorrow, I hear “Certified Cheese Professional Program” and I cannot resist eavesdropping on the rest of the conversation. Now, I’m listening.
“So this Certified Cheese Professional Program will be something like a class?” The older gentleman asks his younger cheese friend.
“No, more like a field trip really!” Excitement of the younger man about this cheese field trip oozes out of his voice. “The American Cheese Society is holding their annual conference and competition in Wisconsin this year.”
“Well that makes sense. What a great place for a cheese conference!”
“Yeah, and last year it was in Raleigh.”
“Really?” The older man asks, actually sounding interested and now invested in this cheese conversation. “Raleigh? You would think it would be in one of the cheese-production states.”
“Well actually, Raleigh has a Dairy Science Program.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that. I guess that makes sense. I mean, you wouldn’t have a cheese conference somewhere where there isn’t any cheese production or university program, like here in Denver.”
“Actually,” the man says as his voice turns up a notch, a sense of giddy about the location of cheese-related events rising up in the air around him, “The American Cheese Society’s headquarters are right here in Denver! Just off of Colorado Blvd.”
I cannot believe this conversation is happening. A Certified Cheese specialist? A cheese conference and competition? Some cheese headquarters right here in the city in which I live? This warrants some research.
I avoid glancing over at the cheese man sitting next to me. I do not want him to see me staring at him, and then get all self-conscious about what he’s saying and change the topic of conversation. I wait until the two men leave to do some research.
I do some research:
On the “about” page of the American Cheese Society’s (ACS) website, it’s vision statement is explained. It is: “[to be] the leader in promoting and supporting American cheeses.” Their mission statement is a little bit more specific. “ACS provides the cheese community with educational resources and networking opportunities, while encouraging the highest standards of cheesemaking focused on safety and sustainability.” I cover my mouth, trying to muffle the sound of my straight-up roaring laughter that is bursting up from my throat. I just cannot believe there is a whole society of cheesemakers out there. I mean, I know that there are businesses that make cheese, but I never thought there would be an organization that supports cheesemakers. The ways in which ACS supports cheesemakers is explained in their core values. To summarize, the core values are:
Network and Communicate:
Support, promote and connect cheesemakers to other cheesemakers
Informal sharing of best practices, techniques, and marketing efforts
Committed to physical and financial methods that insure the ability to survive and thrive at being self-sufficient in a community with a common focus
And you can even become a member of the ACS. Membership is “available to anyone involved in the trade or simply passionate about American-made specialty and artisanal cheeses.” There are associate, individual, small business, and corporate levels of memberships. ACS has a list of the demographics of their membership on their website, showing that 43% of the members are Cheesemakers/Buttermakers (which turned me into a five-year-old again when I thought, for some reason, it said “buttmakers”), and 19% of the members are retailers. While the list breaks down the demographics into 12 categories (including “other”) the one demographic I am most delighted by is the “Enthusiasts, who are mainly consumers” category that makes up 4% of the membership.
And yes, the ACS Headquarters is in Denver, and, funny enough, it is exactly two miles down the street from where I live.
I text six of my friends and family members to share this hilarious fact of the existence of a Certified Cheese Professional Program, and my mother texts back: “Ha! I’m laughing my gas off!”
Now about the conference and competition. This year, the ACS conference is taking place from July 31st-August 3rd in Madison, WI. Registration ranges from $485-$894 depending on when you sign up and if you are a member of the society or not.
A few of the panels are:
“Unique and Often Confounding Flavors Found in Raw Milk (Tasting)”
“What Do Buyers Look for in Artisan Cheese? (General Interest)”
“Encouraging Flavor: Flora Farming and Soil (Cheesemaker)”
“Wisconsin Beer & Cheese: Made for Each Other! (Tasting)”
“Judging & Competition Tutorial (Tasting/General Interest)
The conference is for three days with panels, events, and competitions going on each day from 7:30am to 9:30pm, with two thirty-minute networking breaks throughout each day.
“I’m getting my Cheese Professional Certification this summer.”
Cheese man said this, and so of course I had to look up what all is involved in getting certified as a cheese professional.
In order to get certified, you have to take an electronic exam that consists of 150 multiple choice questions. You only have three hours to complete the exam (this, compared to the GRE—the standardized test that is required of all students wanting to apply to a graduate-level program—which gives you three hours and forty-five minutes to answer a mere 80 multiple choice questions and to write an essay). This intense cheese exam will result in “measuring candidates’ mastery of cheese knowledge and best practice.” The exam is also used to “evaluate candidates’ understanding of core competencies common to the majority of cheese industry jobs.”
You might be wondering, what consists of “cheese industry jobs.”
Cheese industry jobs are:
“There’s a Dairy Science Program in Raleigh.” Cheese man said this in order to explain why the cheese conference was in North Carolina last year.
When I look online to check out this program, I actually can’t find a Dairy Science Program in North Carolina. I do, however, find fourteen universities that have Diary Science programs, including one in River Falls, WI which promotes on their website as being, “one of the three largest undergraduate Dairy Science programs in the US.” This program has about 125 students enrolled, and its curriculum focuses on genetics, health, nutrition, production and animal welfare. There are many cheesemakers in the making in this country.
After I finish up all of this cheese research, I find that my laughing is starting to decrease in intensity. Sure, I’m still chuckling and grinning, but isn’t it fabulous when people have a passion? To care so intensely about something that you get all excited about a three-day conference in which you will be surrounded by other people who are also geeking out about this passion for such-and-such? There are plenty of passions and plenty of specialized conferences for those passions in this country. From a Queer Transformative Justice conference in Chicago to a weekend-long Bridal Show in Denver, there are plenty of people out there coming together to obsess over their main obsession. I’ve been to writing, feminist, and disability studies conferences before, so I understand how exciting these events can be. Participants of conferences hope to learn something more about their obsession, to open their minds up to new considerations about their passions, and to be surrounded by a group of peers who share their knowledge and excitement.
And I try to end this essay by thinking about the beauty of a cheese conference, how wonderful it is that people actually care enough about the quality and sustainability of cheese. I want to say that is a beautiful thing. Really, though, I’m still kinda busting a gut while I laugh at the fact that the amount of passion some people have for cheese actually necessitates a conference. And if I tried to end this essay with some inspirational statement about that, I would just end up feeling as if I was being too cheesy.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, The Coachella Review and Make/shift among many others. She received the Nonfiction Editor’s Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination. Clammer is a weekly columnist for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as the assistant nonfiction editor for both Eckleburg and The Dying Goose. Her first collection of essays, There is Nothing Else to See Here will be published by Thumbnail Press in Fall 2013. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.