American Cheese Society Conference

Posted on December 15, 2008

This past July, I traveled down to Chicago for the annual ACSconference. At the time, I had mentally committed to a new life incheesemaking, but still couldn’t shake the lingering notion that perhaps I was an impostor, and didn’t belong.

I made the trip with good friend John Weir and his daughter Emma. John has a brother in Chicago, and generously allowed me to tag along.Mankato is a seven hour drive from Chicago, give or take, so we had time to play a few travel games. Emma stumped the old guys with a spirited version of “guess the artist” from her iPod. It was determined that we were lame.

We arrived in Winnetka, a tony northern suburb of Chicago, shortly before dusk. John’s brother, Nick, and sister-in-law Nora, welcomed us to their gorgeous home; a small dinner party had been arranged. Nora, it turned out, was a serious cook. We had a delicious lobster salad with a couple of great french white wines. Before dessert, she brought out a very impressive cheese platter, and the guests began to pepper me with questions. Let the unveiling begin! I did my best, but had the good sense to admit when I was out of my depth. All in all, the night was quite fine: kind, bright hosts and guests, outstanding food and wine, and a calm, warm summer evening.

The next morning, I woke early and slipped out of the house to catch a train into the city. I love big cities, and Chicago is one my favorites. As the train approached the terminal, I felt a great sense of excitement, mixed with that slight gnaw of trepidation. I was finally going to be amongst the finest artisan cheese-makers, critics and aficionados in the country…and what right did I have to join them? Only one way to know.

The conference was at the downtown Hilton. I registered and made my way to the reception area. Everyone seemed friendly enough, though there was a hint of belonging amongst the veterans. I did my best to look secure.

The program was a mixture of large communal and small elective sessions. For the most part, I found myself so immersed in the subjects of discussion I lost track of my self-consciousness. The language was often foreign, but I knew enough to follow along and pick up some useful things. At one session, I sat next to Laurie from Prairie Fruits Farm in Illinois, a farmstead goat cheesemaker; she was very kind and willing to share her thoughts.

There were a few moments where I was close to a “rock star” of the industry–Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s Deli, Steve Jenkins of Fairway Foods, and Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery come first to mind–where I became, I’m almost certain, visibly nervous and suspicious-looking. As a reader, you might be thinking, “Good lord, you’re at a cheese conference, not robbing a bank!”, and you’d be right. So we move on…

Speaking of Sue Conley, my main goal during the conference was to meet her. We had traded a few emails, and she’d asked me to introduce myself. Sue started Cowgirl Creamery (With Peggy Smith) in the nineties, and their cheese has won a bazillion awards. I love their cheese, and from what I could glean from research, their business philosophy and practices. I found an opportune time to approach her at the evening-ending reception. Sue was humble and kind, and very encouraging. She agreed to spend time with me at her facilities the following month. Sue’s acceptance, along with a few glasses of wine and a bunch of great cheese, left me feeling a bit heady as I ventured a few blocks north to my resting place, a large youth hostel.

Youth hostel? Well, yes. In an effort to conserve funds, I decided I could rough it a few nights in a communal environment. I’d stayed at a number of hostels back in the day, and had always had a reasonable experience. And this hostel was just what you might expect: a pretty barren, slightly dingy building with each room accommodating six to ten beds. As I entered my room, I began to have second thoughts. Five German fellows were drinking from a “suitcase” of cheap beer, playing cards, and listening to loud music from a boom box. Drinking is strictly “verboten”
at the hostel, but I imagined myself at their age and figured I would have been right alongside them 20 years ago. “Don’t worry”, the most outgoing of the bunch said, “We’re going out in few minutes.”

I climbed up to my bunk and settled in. As promised, the Germans filed out and the rest of my roomies were all sleeping or at least quiet. I’d like to say I drifted off and enjoyed a peaceful night. I had moments of fitful rest, and could never quite get comfortable. Then, around 4, my Teutonic bunkmates returned, fully lubricated and quite chatty. I grumbled at them a few times, and they eventually settled into bed and drifted off. My alarm startled me at 6:30, and I quietly slipped down the hall to shower, loathing my “adventurous spirit”.

After several cups of coffee at the conference, I felt restored and ready for the day. This was, after all, the epicenter of great American cheese. All of the sessions were informative and helpful, though there was one tedious moment during a Q & A session regarding the safety of unpasteurized cheese. I had no idea the level of passion this held for some of the participants, and I can say with confidence they would have gone at it for hours if the moderator hadn’t changed topics.

The conference ended with the Festival of Cheese, a function open to the public, featuring every cheese submitted for judging. We’re talking about more than a thousand entries, and as I walked into the hall, I was a bit taken aback. The football-field room held a number of tables bearing, if not mountains, then small hills of cheese. At one end, there was a scale version of the Chicago skyline sculpted from a wide array of cheese. Really.

I found a glass of wine and plunged into the fray. Most of the tasters were orderly and polite, but getting near the grand prize winners (the top three cheeses of the bunch) required some tenacity. All together, I think I tried close to a hundred cheeses, all of them good, some amazing. There were a few other vendors in attendance, the best, for me, a charcuterie outfit from Utah, Creminelli. Nice stuff from free range herds.

About then, my phone began to vibrate. It was John, and he wanted to know if I would come back to Winnetka for the night and join them for dinner at a local Italian place. Sated with cheese, salumi, and bread, my stomach said no. Then I considered the prospects of one more night at the Hostel. “I’ll be there as quick as I can.”, I replied, starting a beeline toward my soon-to-be former residence.

Fortunately, by the time I reached the station I had an hour’s wait before the next train. This gave me time to digest a bit, and when I found the Weir’s dining al fresco at their favorite trattoria, I was persuaded to try the fish special and a nice salad. Everything was, to borrow one of John’s favorite descriptors, fabulous. Since this is a blog and I can make up the rules, I’d like to pass on, again, my gratitude to Nick and Nora Weir for their kindness and generosity. Cheese is coming your way!

On the drive home, as is custom, we spent less time talking and more reflecting. I felt like I’d climbed up a few notches on the cheese-knowledge ladder, been introduced to thoughts and theories I’d never even considered, and found a potential (more later) mentor. Best of all, I felt a renewed confidence that if my fellow attendees could do it, so could I.

In 2009, the Conference will be in Austin, Texas. I plan on staying at the hotel.

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