My food journey started with cheese and the food culture I learned from my grandfather and great-grandmother. I can never talk about the cheese without telling the story of my grandfather and his brothers, who became cheese makers in California after emigrating from Italy in the early 1900’s. I’ve told the story hundreds of times, yet while doing research for this piece I found out that my terrific story was wrong. I don’t know where I acquired my version of the story. I even thought I remembered my mom telling it to me. Fortunately the real story is even better than the spurious version. It makes me wish more than ever that I could hear them talk about their early years in this country.
I knew that they entered the country through Ellis Island and made their way to California, but then I had them buying a winery in Northern California. The way my story went, they were about to start making wine when prohibition happened, necessitating either a change in plans or legal outlook. Deciding that legal was better, they bought a dairy and became cheese makers.
What really happened is that they went first to Amador County, California, where they worked in the gold mines at the end of the gold rush. The heyday of gold had already passed so they moved on to San Francisco, where one brother worked as a machinist and my grandfather and another brother worked in a wine shop. My grandfather then served in the armed forces during World War I. After my grandfather returned from the war they pooled their resources to buy a dairy farm in Northern California so they could go into business for themselves.
They were good dairymen and soon found that they had excess milk, so they started to make and sell butter. They still had milk to spare, so they took classes in cheese making and started making cheese. This was how I wound up in a family of artisanal cheese makers long before the term artisanal was generally applied to food. One of the cheeses the brothers created was a dry aged Monterey Jack. There was no importation of cheese into this country at that time so this dry Jack would act as a substitute for Parmigiano and be a grating cheese especially appealing to the Italians in California. I have early memories of being in the cool cheese-scented aging rooms with their big racks of cheeses that were hand formed and rubbed on the outside with a pepper-cocoa mixture. For us, cheese came in eight pound wheels, and we had gift packs at holiday time, with lovely exotic things like cheese with caraway seeds. My grandmother made the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the history of the world. Every December I still have to clear a whole shelf in my refrigerator for the arrival of the holiday cheese.
My grandfather made his own RV out of an old milk delivery truck and it always smelled like anise cookies. He built a big outdoor entertaining center and kitchen area in his yard, and the Fourth of July parties were legendary, with my grandfather beaming behind the bar and great platters of food loaded on the big table. My Bohemian great-grandmother lived next door to my grandparents, maintaining a giant garden and being head family celebration cook until very late in her long life. Over the years her perfect pork roast with sauerkraut and dumplings was one of my very favorite holiday dinners. I remember her special dishes like childhood was yesterday. She made amazing fried chicken, sweet Listy (crispy delicate pastry triangles coated with a sprinkling of powdered sugar), perfect buttermilk pancakes and countless bohemian specialties. I remember helping her grind poppy seeds and being fascinated by the meat grinder and other tools she used to create our meals.
While my great-grandmother Buby had cooked for us for our whole lives, as she grew older we realized that none of us had any written recipes for our classic family dishes. Buby was never fluent in written English, so we started a project to cook alongside her and quantify her culinary magic so we wouldn’t lose the thread of our traditional family meals. We each learned different dishes and among other things I became the guardian of the dumplings. When Buby could no longer make the dumplings, I made them for her for Christmas dinner. It was a huge deal. Handle the flour mixture too much, and the dumplings would be heavy and inedible (they were called “sinkers” if that happened) and I would let everybody down. To my relief the dumpling making went off without a hitch and the dumplings floated light and perfect. After she tasted them she said, “Good, you can make dumplings. Now you can get married! But you have to marry a good Bohemian.” Apparently dumplings were the board exams of growing up and once you qualified on dumplings you had everything you needed to start your own family. I was seventeen.
This was how a child of the fifties and sixties learned food in the era of TV dinners and an ever proliferating array of convenience foods. Not that I didn’t love Swanson’s TV dinners, with the cunning divided metal tray imparting its metallic tang to the Salisbury Steak, fried chicken, potatoes, vegetables and apple crisp contained so delightfully in its little food corrals. And not that I didn’t plague my mom to buy me Spaghetti-Os. She never would, as she made ever so much better pasta and sauce at a fraction of the cost. When I ate at friends’ houses it was my guilty pleasure to enjoy the forbidden canned pasta in overly sweet tomato sauce.
Despite these moments of assimilation, I always knew that real whipped cream didn’t come out of a can, great bread was not white and flimsy, and made from scratch mostly ruled. For me fresh, locally produced food is just a return home. The cheese has kept up with the times. The company has seen four generations of Rumianos, and they are the first in the world to receive a Non-GMO Project Verification for their organic butter and cheese. Instead of waiting for special occasions for family cheese I can stop by my local Whole Foods for Monterey Jack and Mozzarella bearing my grandfather’s name. As I tell the story of my grandfather and the cheese to the checkout clerk, I think about how proud my grandfather would be that the cheese goes on.