Saturday, August 28, 2010

Pleasant Ridge Reserve Wins ACS

The streets of Seattle are singing the praises of Wisconsin cheesemakers tonight, as America's Dairyland swept the 2010 American Cheese Society competition, winning nearly one-third of all awards, including the prestigious Best of Show prize.

Out of 1,462 total entries, Wisconsin cheesemakers scored 98 awards, including 29 firsts, 36 seconds and 33 third places. Cheesemakers from 225 companies in 34 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico were represented.

Taking the top prize of the night was Extra Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve, made by Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wis.. It is the third time Pleasant Ridge Reserve has won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society, winning previously in 2001 and 2005, and is the only cheese in the history of the competition to win the top prize three times.

The win is especially sweet for the company, as the winning cheese was made by Andy Hatch, who has acted as Uplands' primary cheesemaker since 2007. The previous-winning Pleasant Ridges were crafted by company owner Mike Gingrich. Both Mike, his wife, Carol, and Andy were on hand tonight to accept the prize.

"It sure helps to hire a good cheesemaker," joked Mike, putting his arm around Andy's shoulders and giving him a squeeze. "This is an especially meaningful award - to have won this competition three times in 10 years is just amazing. I don't know what to say."

Andy Hatch was equally speechless. "Can you just make up something for me that sounds good? I'm not thinking straight," he said, smiling. "Wow, what a night. It's going to be a good night."

The cheese that won the top prize was aged longer than most Pleasant Ridge Reserves on the market. Retailers were putting their order in tonight, as Mike says he's got about 1,000 wheels of this particular cheese, and once they're gone, they're gone.

In addition to the Uplands crew, a host of Wisconsin cheesemakers swept the competition, including perennial favorite Sid Cook at Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle. Cook left the auditorium with a basket full of 18 ribbons. BelGioioso Cheese in Denmark, captured the second most ribbons for Wisconsin, with a total of 7 awards, and Sartori Foods in Plymouth took home six ribbons.

First place ribbons for Wisconsin cheesemakers went to:

Arthur Schuman, Inc, Montfort: Montforte Gorgonzola Cheese
BelGioioso Cheese, Denmark: Sharp Provolone Mandarino
Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds: Lil Wils BIG Cheese
Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle: Smoked Billy Blue, Fresh Marisa, Native Sheep
Cesar's Cheese, Random Lake: Oaxaca String Cheese
DreamFarm, Cross Plains: Fresh Goat Cheese with Pesto
Edelweiss Creamery, Monticello: Cellar Aged Grass Based Gouda, Grass Based Emmentaler
Emmi-Roth Käse USA, Monroe: GranQueso
Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby: Driftless Honey Lavender
Holland's Family Cheese, Thorp: Marieke Gouda Onion Garlic, Marieke Gouda Smoked
Klondike Cheese, Monroe: Brick, Reduced Fat Feta
Lactalis American Group, Belmont: 1 kg Brie
Montchevre-Betin, Belmont: Chevre in Blue - Goat Milk Blue Cheese
North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, Willard: Black River Caraway Blue
Pine River Pre-Pack, Newton: Extra Sharp Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese Food
Sartori Foods, Plymouth: Sartori Reserve BellaVitano Gold, Sartori Reserve Pastorale Blend, Sartori Asiago, Sartori Reserve Balsamic BellaVitano
Saxon Homestead Creamery, Cleveland: Green Fields
Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville: Extra Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Ridge Reserve
Widmer's Cheese Cellars, Theresa: Traditional Colby, 8 Year Cheddar

In addition to landing the most first place awards, Wisconsin cheesemakers swept 11 categories, including: American Originals Brick Cheese; American Originals Colby; American Originals Made from Sheep’s Milk or Mixed Milk; Blue Mold Cheese Made from Cow’s Milk; Blue Mold Cheese Made from Goat’s Milk; Italian Type Cheeses Grating Types; Italian Type Cheeses Pasta Filata; Smoked Cheeses Made from Cow’s Milk; Fresh Sheep’s Milk Cheeses Flavor Added; Cheese Spreads Made from Cow’s Milk; and Aged Sheep’s Milk Cheeses.

Winning Second Place, Runner-Up Best in Show was Vermont Butter & Creamery for its Bonne Bouche. Taking Third Place, or Second Runner-Up Best in Show was Farms for City Kids Foundation in Vermont, for its Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise.

All in all, it was a very good night for Wisconsin. I'm off to celebrate. :)

Friday, August 27, 2010

My Favorite Cheese People

It's Friday at the American Cheese Society conference in Seattle. That means, like every year, it's about the time I remember why I take a week out of my schedule, experience the transit from hell (whether it be by plane, train or automobile), and trek to an annual meeting of cheese geeks from across the continent.

Here's the long and short of it: I come here because of the people. Just as I live in Wisconsin because it's full of nice people (and great cheese), I go to ACS because it feels like coming home. Whether they be cheesemakers, cheese scientists, cheese nerds or cheese writers, some of my very favorite people on the planet (notwithstanding my beloved Wisconsin cheesemakers) gather every year at the American Cheese Society and inspire me to forge ahead another year in spreading the gospel that is American Artisanal Cheese.

So who are these happy shiny people? Here's a sampling:

Daphne Zepos
Every couple of years at ACS, I work up the nerve to introduce myself and say how much I admire her work, and every time, she graciously assures me how nice it is to see me again. This year, she even asked for my card, which was an especially nice touch. But let's face it, Daphne Zepos has no idea who I am. A mere cheese blogger does not register on the radar of a woman who owns her own cheese importing business in New York and who is regarded as one of the most outspoken and dynamic cheese advocates in the United States. This year, Daphne led an AMAZING 90-minute seminar at ACS, providing a vertical tasting of cow, goat and sheep dairy products, from fluid milk to yogurt, to fromage blanc to different-aged cheeses. This seminar alone was worth my entire trip, and Daphne Zepos is one of the reasons I'll trek to ACS again next year.

Galen Musser
At 19 years old, Galen Musser is one of the best young cheesemakers in the United States. Last year, his Prairie Breeze pulled a giant coup, winning first at ACS in the All Milks Cheddar class, beating out the likes of Beecher's Flagship Reserve. Galen is the lead cheesemaker at Milton Creamery in Iowa, founded in 2006 by his parents, Rufus and Jane Musser. I first met Rufus and Jane in 2003, when they, along with a van load of their Amish neighbors, all sporting matching unibrows - trekked to Madison to meet with Dan Carter, Norm Monsen and I as we were just starting the Dairy Business Innovation Center. Since then, they've built a highly successful creamery and now make cheddar cheese, colby and fresh curds. This year, Galen says he didn't enter Prairie Breeze into the ACS conference. "We can't keep up with the demand now," he told me. "We don't want to win again and get even more orders. We're trying to keep our current customers happy." I think that pretty much says it all.

Judy Schad
Judy is another cheese legend, of whom I usually admire from a distance, and again, occasionally work up the nerve to find an excuse to chat. This year, we were both on the Wednesday ACS bus tour of the Olympic Peninsula, and after sitting behind her for eight hours, I remembered why I like her so much. Judy is the founder of Capriole Farms in Greenville, Indiana and is the creator of such celebrated cheeses as Wabash Cannonball, Old Kentucky Tomme and Piper's Pyramid. Confident, funny, vivacious, but never pretentious, Judy is a trip. She makes me laugh, she makes me think, but most of all, she makes me relaxed. Plus she continues to crank out awesome new cheeses like Juliana, named after a former intern who is now making cheese in England and selling it to Neal's Yard Dairy. What's not to like?

Kate Arding
A native of Britain, Kate is one of the most unassuming, yet highly-regarded cheese geeks in the world. She's done everything from work as wholesale manager for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, to help start Cowgirl Creamery in California. Since 2003, I've been lucky enough to work with her occasionally at the Dairy Business Innovation Center, where she helps small-scale cheesemakers develop and launch new cheeses. Her latest venture, of course, is as one of the Founders and Editors of Culture Magazine, showcasing the world of artisanal and farmstead cheese, and for which I'm lucky to write for. I only get to see Kate once or twice a year, but every time I see her, she gives me a big hug and kiss on the cheek, and visits with me until we've run out of things to catch up on. She's not the type of person who's always looking over your shoulder, scanning the room for someone more important. She genuinely cares about people, goes out of her way to help cheesemakers whenever she can, and has a huge heart. She's a keeper.

Gordon Edgar
Two years ago, some dude named Gordon Edgar emailed me, asking if I was going to be at ACS because he was a fan of my blog and wanted to meet. Little did I know that Gordon was a force to be reckoned with, having worked as the cheese buyer at the Rainbow Cooperative Grocery in San Francisco for 15 years, and author of his own blog, Gordonzola. This year, he came out with a new book, Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, which I picked up one morning to review for Culture, and didn't put down until I finished it around noon. I've written before that Gordon is the Barbara Mandrell of the cheese counter, but he's also the type of guy who welcomes and nurtures newcomers to the cheese industry, can laugh at himself (quite often and quite heartily), and who carries one of the most awesome bags I've ever seen in my life (pictured above). He's cool, and his cool factor radiates across the room. He makes me want to laugh at myself more often (which as you know, is quite easy to do).

I could go on, but time is short and there is more cheese to eat. Stay tuned for tomorrow's announcement of which Wisconsin cheesemakers take home blue ribbons, and of course, which North American cheesemaker wins Best in Show. I'll be blogging live amidst 1,462 cheeses in Seattle's Benoya Hall, where hundreds of people will eat themselves into cheese comas. Can't wait.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sunburn in Seattle

Seattle is spoiling me. It must know I am a first-time visitor and is trying to lull me into moving here by giving me a sunburn in a city where the fashion-conscious have Gore-Tex jackets to match every outfit, introducing me to Tom Douglas' delightful little crab cakes, and sweet-talking me into buying fresh, squeaky cheese curds for $11.95 a pound made smack-dab in the middle of the city at Beecher's Handmade Cheese.

Apparently both the food and weather gods have rolled out the red carpet this week for the American Cheese Society, as the sun has been shining and the food has been flowing since I arrived on Monday.

Today was the first official day of ACS, and attendees celebrated by embarking on one of four different pre-conference tours of the lovely Pacific Northwest. A cozy busload of 50 people and I attempted to visit two creameries and two farms (alas we only made it to 1 cheese plant and 1 farm) as we spent most of our time waiting to board ferries, crossing bodies of water on ferries and waiting for barges on bodies of water to cross under bridges.

(The scenery may be beautiful, but I really have to question the sanity of the manager of Poulsbo's Central Market when she told me, quite passionately, that her three-hour (one-way) commute every day from Seattle to work via car/ferry really IS worth it).

What WAS worth it was hanging out with fellow blogger Kirstin Jackson (that's her pictured above, looking quite modelesque while braving the wind atop one of Washington's famous ferries) and visiting tiny Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend, Wash. We got to see its one circular cheese vat in action and meet its two owners, Matt and Ryan. My favorite of their many cheeses is Trailhead, a 5-1/2 pound tomme aged for three months.

While Trailhead was originally made with local Jersey milk (sadly no longer available - the farm is now selling it all as fluid raw milk), Matt & Ryan had to convert to local Holstein milk four months ago and have just finally got the cheese back to where they want it. I never tasted Trailhead with Jersey milk, but I can tell you it's pretty darn good right now as is. It carries a nice nutty flavor and catches your attention.

While Mt. Townsend was the highlight of today's 8-hour bus ride, yesterday was one highlight after another. I started the morning with a Savor Seattle food tour of the fabulous Pike Place Market, and over the course of two hours, consumed the following:
  • Two hot, sugary and delicious Daily Dozen Donuts
  • One cup of MarketSpice "Seattle Blend" tea
  • Three different samples of amazing smoked salmon at Pike Place Fish (home to flying fish)
  • Two fresh bing cherries and a juicy nectarine at Frank's Quality Produce
  • A cup of classic clam chowder at Pike Place Chowder
  • Five different dried cherries covered in various types of chocolate from Chukar Cherries
  • Flagship cheddar and a cup of amazing mac n' cheese at Beecher's
  • A beef & cheese piroshky at Piroshky-Piroshky
  • And a crab cake from Etta's
Vowing never to eat again, we then went to Pike Place Pub, downed a plate of nachos and a couple of beers, and went on the Underground Tour in Pioneer Square. Seeing no ghosts and no rats, we ended the evening at the fabulous Calf and Kid, a new cheese shop on Capital Hill in Seattle owned by the charming Sheri LaVigne, where Gordon Edgar was doing a reading of his "Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge".

Gordon was losing his voice and only read a couple of excerpts, but one was my favorite: the re-telling of buying his first, very over-ripe, very nasty Tallegio. The fabulous Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection was on hand as well, and brought along a half dozen of cheeses from California, along with what tasted like a very nice, un-nasty Tallegio. What a sweetie.

About 30 people gathered round and asked Gordon questions like: "I hate cheese. It makes me want to vomit. Which one would you recommend that won't make me sick?" (Gordon, in his infinite wisdom and desire to sell books, deferred to cheese goddess Judy Creighton, who happened to be in the crowd, and she advised a creamy, buttery Havarti. Good call).

All in all, a couple of very pleasant days here in the Emerald City. I can only hope that the week will get even better, as close to 700 of my favorite cheesemakers, cheese enthusiasts and general cheese geeks gather to taste, learn and talk cheese. Let the cheese coma commence.

Monday, August 23, 2010

On Location: ACS in Seattle

Okay, so technically the American Cheese Society conference has not yet started, but I'm in Seattle anyway. The weather looked grand, I needed a reason to play hooky in a mosquito-free city for a couple of days, and there's a Starbucks on every corner. What's not to love about this town?

While most conference attendees have not arrived, more than 1,460 cheeses are here somewhere. As I write this, a team of esteemed judges are preparing tomorrow to start sniffing, tasting and spitting out hundreds of wheels, wedges, blocks, discs and who-knows-what-all-shapes-and-sizes-of-cheeses, all in the quest to find blue ribbon winners, as well as the ultimate of ultimate winners: Best in Show (widely known to be the golden ticket to marketing success for one lucky cheesemaker).

However, one of my favorite cheeses, Goodhue Gouda, from the fine folks at Pastureland Cooperative, almost didn't make it to Seattle for the ACS competition. Created with PastureLand milk by Wisconsin cheesemaker Tom Torkelson, aged by Wisconsin cheesemaker Felix Thalhammer, and lovely as the day is long, Goodhue Gouda is a remarkable cheese. It's fun watching people try it: it stops them in their tracks. They slow down and you can actually see the little pop-up word balloon emerging from their mouths saying, "Oh? Oohhh...this is nice..."

And to think, that little pop-up word bubble didn't almost happen to the ACS judges here in Seattle. Here's the scoop:

Around midnight on Saturday, Steve Young-Burns of Pastureland sent me an email with the first two words reading: "Mayday! Mayday!"

This, obviously, caught my attention.

Turns out that Steve had just learned that his wheel of Goodhue Gouda, by mistake, did not get shipped out of Minneapolis to ACS last week. Steve wanted to know if I knew anyone traveling to Seattle today going through Minneapolis who might be willing to carry on a cooler with a wheel of cheese.

While I'm always up for packing cheese, alas, I was not much help, as I was in Madison, with a direct flight to Seattle out of Milwaukee. I put out the bat signal to some cheese geek friends in the Minneapolis area, but hit dead ends all around.

Despair sunk in.

Then, on Sunday at 4:49 p.m., I got this update from Steve:

"I think I have a neighbor set to take it. She is a retired airline employee, and was looking for an excuse to go to Seattle. She is pretty sure she can get it there for us. "

Whoo-hoo! This was good news. But the backstory of the events leading up this good news are even more interesting.

Steve continued: "I just found out yesterday morning that we didn't ship this wheel, and spent the day trying to a) locate a wheel a retailer was willing to give up, because we don't have anymore ready right now, and b) get it dropped off at FedEx or UPS in time for Saturday shipping, all while I was driving back from vacation in Michigan.

By the time I got back, a neighbor was able to get a wheel for me from Surdyk's, and had bought several cold packs and got them started freezing, but we didn't have shipping lined up yet. I spent from 9-11pm last night trying to convince FedEx and UPS to let me drop off last night, but the offices were closed. Resigned to same day shipping ($175!), I started figuring out how we could do that on Sunday or Monday, but found that Homeland Security rules will not let you ship anything heavier than 15 ounces same day.

Crushed, and convinced I was not going to get to ship it, I opened a Furthermore Knot Stock and had some bourbon from a Michigan winery we'd stopped at, and sat grumbling on our front stoop in the dark.

Come Sunday morning, a little hungover, and more than a little pissed that I'd not been able to solve it, a neighbor suggested i post it on craigslist. Thinking, what the hell, I put a note up on craigslist ("Flying to Seattle on Sunday or Monday? Want to help an organic dairy cooperative deliver a very special wheel of cheese to the Sheraton?"), our neighborhood listserve, and on our Twitter feed. Decided I'd done all I could, and left for a 20 mile bike ride with my wife. 90 minutes in to the ride my phone rang. "Hi is this Steve? I'm your neighbor, Linda. I am a retired airline employee, and have been looking for a reason to go to Seattle..."


Steve concludes:

"It's not there yet, but if it doesn't happen now it's not meant to. Cross your fingers."

With fingers crossed, I boarded my own plane to Seattle and checked into the Sheraton (the conference hotel) around 2 p.m. today. Then, at 2:39 p.m., this email came in from Steve:

"The eagle has landed: Goodhue Gouda is at the Sheraton. Where's my lucky rabbit's foot?"

Whoo-hoo! Good to know that Goodhue Gouda will get judged at ACS after all. Now let's cross our fingers for a blue ribbon ...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

New Label: Old Story

I've discovered that any good story, like a good joke, will involve three specific components. For example, jokes that start out with: "A Priest, a Rabbi and a Minister walk into a bar..." almost never disappoint, and stories that start with "Once Upon A Time" almost always have a distinct beginning, middle and end.

For any good story to be successful, however, one needs a good storyteller. Scott Meister is a born storyteller, although I'm not sure he realizes it. When I visited Meister Cheese in Muscoda last week after hearing about the company's new labels, I asked the routine question every journalist (in this case former journalist) would ask, and said "So why a new label?"

What I got was a brutally honest answer, which was at once both refreshing and intriguing. Scott walked over to a display cooler in the corner, pointed to an old, laser-printed label with a 70s-circa font sporting "Meister Cheese" that looked like it was designed in a disco, and said: "I didn't want to go my whole career without having a label that bridged the gap between my grandfather and my kids."

Turns out the story behind the new Meister Cheese label - which features a very handsome portrait of the company's patriarch, Joseph Meister, making cheese in an old copper vat -- involves three distinct components: a boat, a bar, and a long-lost cousin.

Ahhh ... the mystical trifecta of a good story. Hang onto your hats, kids. Here we go.

According to Scott:

"Most Meisters are characters, and this guy named Jim Meister is no exception. Prior to 54 weeks ago, I had met Jim twice in my life. Once was at my wedding, and the first time was 22 years ago was when my dad had just purchased a new boat. We took it out on the lake, and after awhile, my dad says, 'You know, I've got a cousin who runs a bar somewhere around here - we should look him up.' So we drove around the lake until we found it, and that's the first time I met Jim - he was running a bar on the lake.

Scott continues:

"Fast forward to one year ago - same lake - I'm on a boat with my son, and I say 'You know, I once had a cousin who ran a bar on this lake. So we drive around, can't find it, and I call up an old friend. He says Jim sold the bar years ago, and since then, it has burned down. So I figure, well, that's that. So we stop at another place on the way home and we're sitting at our table eating dinner. Two old guys are sitting next to us - and one gets up to leave. His friend says, 'So long, Jim,' and I look up, and sure enough, this guy's shirt says Meister Log & Lumber - which is the business my cousin Jim's family has run forever."

"I jumped up, introduced myself, and just like that, it was as if 20 years had never passed. We sat down, renewed our friendship and found out that he stopped at our cheese store all the time to buy cheese, but had never said hello because he figured we were too busy to talk."

"We had been working on a new label for awhile at that point, and had wanted a portrait done of Grandpa Joe. But all we had was a photograph. We had a brilliant illustrator - Ross Pollard, grandson of George Pollard - who was going to do the portrait for us, but he wanted to work with a live model. As soon as I saw Jim, I knew we had our live model, because Jim looks just like Grandpa Joe."

Fast forward to today, and cousin Jim, portraying Grandpa Joe Meister, is the new face of Meister Cheese. Look closely at the label, and you'll see wheels of cheese aging on racks in the background. I asked Scott if that part of the label represented the past or the future of Meister Cheese, and for once, I stumped him.

While Grandpa's Cheddar daisies - made by hand - were part of the past, the future of Meister cheese does involve Cheddar tophats - made by hand - currently in development. And, Meister is working on an artisan, cloth-wrapped cheddar that's due to be released this fall. In the years between Grandpa's artisan Cheddars and today's artisan Cheddars, Meister Cheese has made a boat load of high-quality specialty cheeses. But there's a difference between specialty and artisan cheeses, and Scott knows it.

"After a 40-year gap, we're taking up artisan cheeses again," Scott said. "It feels good to reconnect to the past, while making our own mark on the future."

Well said, Mr. Meister, and I'm pretty sure Grandpa Joe would approve.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A New Day At Meister Cheese

Every once in awhile, one stumbles into a room full of treasure without even looking. Good news, artisan cheese fans: today was one of those days, and you're going to be the benefactor in a few months.

After taking a road trip to Meister Cheese in Muscoda to talk with co-owners and siblings Scott Meister and Vicki Thingvold about doing a story on their new labels (more on that in a later post), Scott asked if I wanted to take a walk into their new aging cooler to see something new they were working on.

Without much thought and still talking about the new labels, I of course said yes. Before I knew it, we were walking through a huge walk-in cooler door into a sight that would have stopped Ali Baba in his tracks (and we didn't even have to say "Open Sesame"). What appeared (cue the archangels chorus here) was amazing: a long row of bandaged Cheddars, in several different states of aging, lining a 40-foot long aging cellar. Yes, folks, 40 feet of bandaged Cheddars that until today, no knew existed except the Meisters.

These little beauties are called Eagle Cave Reserve and are 6.5-pound cloth-bound cheddar truckles. They are made from the company's "A Triple F" milk, which means the milk was produced on animal-friendly, family farms, where farmers are audited on how they humanely treat their animals in order to receive a premium payment from Meister Cheese. The result is superior milk, and in this case, the end result is amazing cheese.

Not only does Eagle Cave Reserve look absolutely stunning, it tastes fabulous. We tried a truckle that was made in February, and it rivaled some of the best cloth-bound Cheddars I've ever tasted. Then we tried one made in January and it topped it. This cheese is one to watch, folks, and it's only seven months old.

Meister Cheese plans to release the Eagle Cave Reserve this fall, when it's closer to 1-year-old, but I'd argue that it's ready now. Not being a company that sells cheese retail (they make extremely high-quality, specialty cheeses for private label customers), Scott says he's not sure how to market it. I told him it's easy: get this cheese in the mouth of a few specialty cheese shop owners and you'll be sold out.

After I had recovered from the shock of seeing so many beautiful cheeses in such an unexpected place, Scott told me he had another surprise. We went to a different aging cooler and poof: a rack of 42-pound Cheddar top hats appeared. I felt like I was on a pirate ship getting a tour of all the hidden booty.

The Meisters are calling this new cheese Scottsdale Reserve, named after Scott and the river dale they live in (I had to look it up - a dale is a valley). Scott didn't have any of theses cheeses cut up for sale yet, and I wasn't about to ask him to cut into a giant 42-pound top hat for a mere cheese blogger to try, so the jury's still out on this one. But, based on Meister's track record for high-quality gourmet cheeses, this one will be a winner as well.

So, take note, specialty cheese shops. There's a couple of new cheeses in Wisconsin worth checking out, and they're hidden in a river dale in southwest Wisconsin. Give Scott a call and ask to check out his treasure trove.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mothers & Daughters

This week, my soon-to-be-14-year-old-daughter and I went on what I like to call "The last mother/daughter road trip before my daughter starts to hate me because she's a teenager and I'm her mother."

This was the second road trip we'd done. The first was when she was nine and we drove to a horse show in Lexington, Kentucky. She was just tall enough to ride in the front seat for the first time, and for the first 6 hours in the car, all she talked about - and I mean every single conversation - was about road kill.

It hadn't occurred to me before that very moment that as a little girl in the backseat, she had never been able to see dead animals laying by the side of the road. It was quite the learning curve. She was adamant that one of the animals we saw with its feet up in the air was an anteater, and I didn't disagree. Our relatives mocked us when we put it in the annual Christmas letter, but I didn't care. It was one of those mother/daughter memories that I wasn't willing to give up.

Five years later, and roadkill didn't come up once in our conversation while on the road to a wild horse ranch in South Dakota this week. In fact, much didn't come up at all. She spent the first six hours texting her friends on her cell phone while we listened to some CDs she had made for the trip -- I suffered through 360 minutes of screaming teen angst from bands I've never heard of -- because I was looking for a mother/daughter bond and told her I didn't want her listening to her iPod the whole trip.

Ten hours later and with me in dire need of a Mountain Dew and ear plugs, we pulled into a hotel in Mitchell, South Dakota. After checking into our room, I was talked into going down to the indoor pool which featured a water slide. Not being overly coordinated, I immediately proceeded to fall backwards down the steps to the kiddie pool (I've got the road rash to prove it), and felt a little love when my daughter came to check on me when it seemed I was trapped under 8 inches of water. She assured me no one had seen me, and very valiantly tried not to laugh, until we both started giggling and she helped me up.

Moments later, a family with two teenagers - the key here being one was a boy - entered the pool and I promptly got ditched. Before I knew it, the little girl who just a few months ago, made me order for her at restaurants because she was too shy to talk to the waitress, was flipping her hair back, flashing a million dollar smile, and talking a mile a minute with kids she just met about school, vacations and lame parents.

As I stood by the side of the pool, watching my daughter flirt and make new friends, I realized that while every parent looks forward to seeing their child grow up, my daughter was already there. I felt like I was watching an episode of The Young and the Restless where one day Victor & Nikki give birth to a cute little baby in a pink blanket, and the next day, a deep-voiced narrator breaks into the scene with, "The role of Victoria Newman is now being played by Heather Tom," and a beautiful, teenage girl walks into the scene calling Victor and Nikki "mom and dad." You're left wondering, wow - I wonder how that happened.

I never had a chance to go on a mother/daughter trip with my mom because a) we lived on a farm and we didn't take any trips that didn't involve going to the sale barn or grocery store, and b) my mom was always busy cooking, cleaning, farming, and raising a family. She also got sick when I was in sixth grade and died after a long illness when I was 21. My best memories of quality mother/daughter time were when she took me to all three of the Star Wars movies (my mother was a closet Trekkie and sci-fi fan), and I fell in love with the Ewoks in The Empire Strikes Back. I also remember her taking me to Ghostbusters at the Avalon Theater in Platteville, and we bought popcorn that I promptly threw up in the air in fright when the Gargoyles came alive.

Overall, as mother/daughter trips go, this one with my daughter has been a good one. When she hasn't been busy texting, talking to or scouting out cute boys, I've learned the following:

1. Feeding wild burros can be a bonding moment. There's nothing like feeding wild - and when I say wild - I mean very tame - burros fig newtons while driving the wildlife loop at Custer State Park. It takes some serious mother/daughter coordination to feed and then fend off five burros while running to your car at the same time.

2. My daughter will probably never date a biker. After hanging out with 500,000 bikers in the Black Hills during Sturgis week, I think we have successfully determined that most bikers are rude, loud and annoying. I'm sure there are some very lovely leather-wearing bikers out there, but I didn't meet any near Sturgis, and after one who was old enough to be my father hit on my daughter, she was easily creeped out enough for a lifetime. We ran away quickly.

3. My daughter thinks I'm funny. I learned this while reading the place mat at the Chinese restaurant in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and my Year of the Rat said I was "charming, imaginative and generous." I was feeling pretty good about this description until my daughter chimed in with "That's weird. I wouldn't use any of those three words to describe you." After I threw her a dirty look, she chimed in with, "But you are pretty funny."

4. I really like my daughter and I think she may actually like me. We managed to hang out for six days without getting into a serious argument, we had fun together, we got lost together, and we found our way together. My daughter is becoming a beautiful, thoughtful young woman and I am so proud to be her mom.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Cheese Auction

The Wisconsin State Fair has been conducting a Blue Ribbon Cheese & Butter Auction ever since I can remember, but this year was the first time I was invited as a potential bidder with my Wisconsin Cheese Originals organization.

I'd never been to a cheese auction, and in good faith, packed my checkbook in my purse. I figured how hard would it really be to bid on and win a chunk of cheese?

Um, yeah, it turns out my pockets were not nearly deep enough for the high-paying crowd at the Wisconsin State Fair. A total of 17 different blue-ribbon cheeses put up for auction by the State Fair Dairy Promotion Board (it uses the money for scholarships and such) brought more than $28,000 - a new record.

Yes, that's right. 17 wheels of cheese = $28,000. You do the math. That's some SERIOUSLY expensive cheese.

The thing one realizes quickly at a cheese auction is it's really not the price per pound that counts, it's how many pounds you're bidding on. For example, four pounds of Sid Cook's blue-ribbon Casa Bolo Mellage went up for auction, compared to 40 pounds of Monterey Pepper Jack by Lynn Dairy.

Before I left, my husband informed me that my auction budget was $500 (me thinketh I may have purchased one too many designer bags lately), so I was thinking, hey, I can probably at least get four pounds of cheese, right?


Sid Cook's Casa Bolo Mellage cheese went for $230 a pound. Yes, that's $230 PER POUND. I stopped bidding at $125/per pound after my husband kicked me under the table. The next cheese I bid on was Limburger by Chalet Cheese. I figured I had a fighting chance to buy a stinky cheese, but no. It went for $150 a pound. Again, I stopped at $125, due to the aforementioned kicking.

The Grand Champion cheese, a Rosemary-Olive Oil Rubbed Asiago, made by Mike Matucheski at Sartori Foods, went for $127.50 per pound. Times 20 pounds, that's a rousing $2,550 for a wheel of cheese. And people complain to me that artisan cheese costs too much in the store. Yeesh.

Before the bidding started, my friend Norm and I were trading auction stories. I told him my father once brought home a load of wooden ladders from a farm sale that he bought by mistake after waving hello to a friend. He tried to pass them off as something we really needed, but we eventually got the real story out of him.

Norm said he had an uncle who viewed auctions as a social gathering, and who always bought something whether he needed it or not, thinking it was worth the price of admission for a good show.

In the end, Norm and I both went home cheese-less. Oh well, there's always next year. I'm thinking I just may send the Dairy Promotion Board a check anyways. It was a pretty good show.