27 July 2011

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Awaiting my first class at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont, I solemnly, silently swore to my late sister Sharon, whose bequest on that August 2009 day began funding an intense and still active foray into fromage, that a new career path would certainly intersect at some point – even if my eventual occupation omitted immersing my hands in milk. Still, my declaration of independence on 4 July 2010, establishing Cheese Happens LLC, was made minus any notion of flip-flopping the cheese/bread equation. But in soothing the disappointment bred by losing the locus of my dream downtown creamery/bakery with a surge in sourdough breadbaking and a torrent of tweaks to my Old Waverly scone/muffin/tea bread/cookie formulas, I freed myself to acknowledge 40 years of baking will forever trump all amassed and eventual cheesemaking. Cheese will still happen, but baking is the bomb.

How hilarious that a year after writing about forming Cheese Happens LLC in Let Freedom Ring, the new proposed location's roof hosts a replica Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty (a gift to the United States from France). Just back from French bread camp in Vermont, where we baked in the glory of a monumental French oven, I sat in my truck (Maryland-tagged CHEVRE) and stared at this familiar-as-home, forlorn warehouse, perfectly set up and sized for both bread and cheese, with love bubbles in my eyes, morphing Emma Lazarus' words to reflect, rather, a future vision of me, over-tired and under-capitalized, boiling before a steamy, (hopefully) French oven, shepherding my dough from gassy little balls into magnificent miche, batards, and baguettes - with my chevre logs aging gracefully down the hall. On the .65 mile ride home (close enough to what I wished for), Lady Liberty beamed at me from a Remax billboard.

28 June 2011

Love Comes From The Most Unexpected Places

I read my newspapers with scissors in hand, clipping away at sentences or fragments thereof; some days the New York Times looks like Swiss cheese when I'm done. Among yesterday's yield, "A single journey can change the course of a life," practically ripped itself from the page.

My best memories of five days at the dawn of 2010 in and within an hour's range of Petaluma, California, lapping up invitations to meet icons of the cheese world and watch them (and sometimes their cows, goats, and sheep) at work in the world's most beautiful places, center instead on a chance 6 A.M. meeting with the owner of Della Fattoria after what can only be described as a transformational moment gobbling her wood-fired bread, and the invitation to watch and learn at her farm-based bakery, where I walked in and it felt like home. While a week-long return visit to apprentice was quashed by one of those twin February 2010 blizzards, I was determined to find a way to make something resembling that kind of bread. A baking binge ensued, and when the dust settled and the snow melted, I got on the road and visited wood-fired bakeries in my beloved, next-favorite state (behind Maryland) of Vermont, also checking out a handful (between mouthfuls of poutine) in Montreal. And then I incorporated Cheese Happens just short of a year ago, choosing the name because it's cute and catchy - and elastic. Cheese, or bread instead of cheese, or bread and a little cheese, or the cakes and scones that won me awards and thirteen years of repeat business - sure - cheese happens. So pretty much every Sunday for the last year and a half I've baked one or two kinds of bread - sourdough, rye, fougasse, baguettes, bagels, etc., on the stone hearth in my Viking, grateful for such relative luxury, but always feeling the primal pull of fire.

Today, on the 24th anniversary of my wedding to, at the time, a most unlikely suitor, I finally admitted my tilt back towards the bakery biz by going to look at various raw rooms where I might again create an inspiring and functional workspace, knowing full well the zero probability, born of many complexities, of building a wood-fired oven in any of them. You could have knocked me over with a feather when, in a business I have frequented weekly for decades, the owner walked me to the back of his building to show me prospective space, which to my astonishment was commanded by an ancient, maybe operable, wood-fired oven. He nonchalantly said there had been two, he took the other down, and the building had been a bakery beginning back in the 1800s. My husband, an architectural historian, quickly found one of the owners had migrated to Maryland from Vermont.

04 July 2010

Let Freedom Ring

Despite Friday morning's dismal economic news, the line of hopeful-looking LLC and corporation-forming folks snaked long in the office of the Maryland State Department of Assessment and Taxation, the faces mirroring shiny brand-new company names sing-songed ahead of mine, among them Revelations Group, Intertwining Dreams, and County Cork - a land of choice cheese today and source of so many British-oppressed Irish immigrating to America so long ago - all a fitting run-up to the next-announced, Cheese Happens, my own declaration of independence.

04 April 2010


No, this blog hasn't been hijacked by a non-Hebrew (and on Passover, no less!). But munching my matzoh on this Easter Sunday, thoughts of re-birth strongly resonate as I remember it's also the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, which in turn sparked the rioting that ruined so much of my beloved city. This plague quickly exacerbated the then decade-old exodus of people and jobs, evidenced still by row upon rotting row with which I was all-too familiar at Baltimore Housing while attempting to manage more than 10,000 vacant structures. But considering five decades of downsizing from a million to 640,000 residents, our bolt out of the abyss is a bit wondrous.

As I combed the city for a creamery location, I suppose it was my service at East Baltimore Development Inc., along with my Highlandtown maternal ancestral roots and the surprisingly strong Jewish communal remnants catercorner to Corned Beef Row that jammed the compass needle east, leading me to a potential location that more than meets the marks I set - vacant, historic, sized for now and also later. But best of all, this building housed a creamery. Talk about your re-birth.

My cheese mentor came to Baltimore yesterday and pronounced it, and my vision for the space, perfect. But an inner-city creamery is still an audacious idea. Once again, breathe deep - faith is the oxygen of dreams. Today, on Passover/Easter/yahrzeit for Dr. King and swaths of Baltimore and other great American cities, the When You Believe lyrics from The Prince of Egypt are comfortingly one size fits all:

There can be miracles
When you believe

26 December 2009

What Does This Have To Do With Cheese?

I closed my eyes, inhaled gently, and imagined hard, but the Timonium traffic din quickly short-circuited the conceit that had placed me at the Inner Harbor. How silly; I, maybe more than most, knew the lovely nutmeg scent wafting downwind from the McCormick plant two miles north hadn't perfumed the downtown air for over two decades.

On 8 December 1988, less than a month after opening the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room - the McCormick teapot, um, "borrowed" for my business card and sidewalk and neon signs - it was announced the McCormick Spice Company would abandon its landmark Inner Harbor building and the Rouse Company would tear it down. The lawsuit I filed and the "Demolition Makes No Scents" campaign I spearheaded for Baltimore Heritage quickly turned legions of citizens into historic preservationists; I've seen nothing to rival that reaction in all my 30 years of advocacy, and certainly not for a building as vernacular as the spice plant.*

But it really wasn't about the building. Intense civic pride for McCormick, homegrown and world-known, fueled the losing fight that concluded with another chink in Baltimore City's ever-eroding industrial legacy.

Less than a mile southeast from where McCormick stood, along the waterfront promenade, the displays in the Baltimore Museum of Industry recount the story of what we invented, innovated, and fashioned, often out-churning other cities in straw hats, umbrellas, men's suits, raincoats, bottle caps, silver flatware, canned oysters, coal, beer, soap, etc. It's tough now, though, to tally a fair number of factories still humming within Baltimore City limits. Some companies moved to Baltimore County or far, far away to expand or cut costs, while others merged out of existence. Whatever the reason, the industrial drain sucked away large numbers of jobs employing citizens across a wide spectrum of education and experience.

What does this have to do with cheese?

The recession may be responsible for my job loss at East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI), but I was ready to revisit self-employment, ideally to work as much with my hands as with my head, satisfying a deep desire to count my efforts at each day's end, as before, for 13 years at Old Waverly (how many guests served, scones baked, dollars in the till, etc.). But to be clear, I felt honored to serve as EBDI's director of communications and was particularly proud, and often moved, when publicizing the success stories EBDI's commitment to workforce development precipitates. Linking underskilled and undereducated residents with the resources to change their lives is the embodiment of tikkun olam, Hebrew for repairing the world, and as a Jew, it was not just my obligation, but my privilege to assist. The advantages afforded me by accident of middle-class birth were accentuated almost daily, intensifying my appreciation for a job I called the intersection of everything I had ever done professionally. It was a tough job to lose.

But after a short period of shiva, I set about plotting my next act, quickly abandoning the idea of working from home, however calming and comforting, and embraced the notion of another challenge rife with meaning and emotion.

Overthinking wasn't required. I'd plan around what makes me tick - my native town; old buildings; design, style, and creativity; self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship; doing things right/doing things my way; fantastic food, artisan cheese and the exploding farm-to-table movement. I set off for Wisconsin to see Growing Power in Milwaukee and parts of dairyland further to the southwest. Back home and barely weeks after losing my job, I enrolled in the University of Vermont's Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, this country's only school for artisan cheesemaking, traveling for three months back and forth to complete all beginning and advanced classroom requirements. A week's apprenticeship at New York's prizewinning Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, America's largest sheep dairy, was a total wheat/chaff, er, milk/whey experience, yet the eye-opening daily realities of cheesemaking (literally 90% janitorial and 10% production) didn't deter me, but only help me focus on a business model that might scratch my pesky social work itch and reverse, if only in the tiniest way, the siphoning off of industry in Baltimore City.

With artisan cheesemaking as a blossoming segment of the sustainable food movement and my signature products already in development, it seems opportunities will be ripe to train others. Next needed is a location and I've looked at several, mostly in broken-down East Baltimore buildings. I suppose I've blown well-past a casual interest in this cheesemaking thing.

To quote Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye, himself a milkman, "Sounds crazy, no?" There's only one dairy left in Baltimore City - must be a good reason, and I must be a little meshugana.

The banning of cows in Baltimore City in 1917, a breakthrough in sanitation, led to a huge reduction in the number of dairies. But neither cows, goats, sheep, nor water buffalo need be on-site to make artisan cheese (only farmstead cheese), so I'm working on co-owning goats to manage their care and feeding for the payoff of sweet, organic milk; hopefully, the close proximity of countryside to downtown should limit the sloshing during transit that damages fat globules in milk. The greater degree of difficulty, really, is in finding the just-right location for cheesemaking - easy access, not too big, not too small, suitable for customization and eventually expansion. Oh, and then there's coming up with the $$$. Note to self: breathe deep, keep dreaming, keep moving.

OK, to also keep it real, and to answer Tevye's question - well, maybe, especially considering the direct route to a paycheck working from home and the myriad reasons that render urban cheesemaking a rare phenomenon. But I'm compelled to follow this cheese trail to see where it leads and the journey so far, briefly described here with lots of (Swiss) holes, has been extraordinary. I'll soon fill you in and take you along.

*Indeed, I contend I lost my lawsuit because the judges on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals considered the McCormick factory building plain and thus worthless. Demolition commenced in June 1989, but the building put up a valiant, months-long fight as the wrecking ball much more often bounced off of it than landed solid blows. The Rouse Company (now out of business and its successor, General Growth Properties now in bankruptcy), contending the building needed to come down for "immediate soil testing" in advance of new construction, of course never built a thing, landbanking the parcel after demolishing the building to avoid paying property taxes on the improvements. The last Baltimore Sun article detailing plans for a new building on the vacant site, published two years ago, made no mention of McCormick, a factory so handsome the company long-featured it on their packaging. The building, were it still standing, would no doubt today be Baltimore's hottest harborfront condominium complex. Instead, all that's left is a vacant lot and memories of visits to Ye Olde McCormick Tea House, though some brokenhearted swear they still smell what can only be a phantom cinnamon fragrance.