Up From the Depths: Chapter One

Posted on December 1, 2009

What a month. My last post, over a month ago, ended, “Head down now, into ‘holiday’ mode”, and that is precisely what occurred.

I made more cheese, by a fair margin, than I’ve ever made before. One week, to shoehorn family obligations into the mix, I made two large batches on subsequent days. I’ve promised somewhere along the way to explain a day-in-the-life of a cheesemaker, so here we go.

Almost to the minute, Jim and Kat are done milking at Cedar Summit at nine-thirty a.m. They have been hard at it since five at the latest, and I am in constant awe of their good nature each time I show up. They have always treated me with a small sense of bemusement and a large dose of tolerance, especially the first few visits when I appeared to be fighting a losing battle against the pump hoses.

I drop Alex and Mari off at school, and by the time I reach the “plant” (still seems silly to call my tiny space that), it is just before eight. I prep the place for the day ahead, load up the truck, and I’m off around eight-thirty. The farm is a bit over forty miles away, but I’m motoring in “ol’ red”, our 1987 Ford F250, not the swiftest of steeds. I generally listen to NPR on the radio from the one good speaker that drifts in and out. To date, I’ve made the trek 34 times, and I still get butterflies somewhere along the way, usually for no good reason. Do I have enough gas (the gauge is suspect)? Have I brought everything I need (forgot the dread pump hoses–game over, once)? Can I make my way through St. Peter and it’s Byzantine detour system?

All in all, it’s an enjoyable ride. I get to think a bit on the road–sometimes a good thought comes and I end up calling the office line to leave a message as not to forget.

Once I’ve reached the farm, I wind down the path to the milking barn, and I never fail to get that smile of the interloper who doesn’t work on the farm, but loves the sights, sounds, and, yes, smells. Chickens on the loose. The lowing of the cows. The dogs who love me ’cause I inevitably spill enough milk for a snack. The undeniable, everpresent waft of cowshit.

I back the truck up to the barn, and begin getting the pump and hoses connected. Measuring the tank, noting carefully each notch on the bar that means anywhere from 15 to 25 pounds of milk (a gallon weighs generally 8.7 pounds, give-or-take for fat content). Once I’ve got it all measured and hooked up, the pumping begins. It takes around ten-to-fifteen minutes to get my fill, which means 600-1000 pounds of milk. On occasion, it should be noted, I lose track of something and end up with more milk than I’d bargained for. I try my best, but I’m easily distracted. Kat may be partially guilty, because often she’ll get going on the most important thing ever, and I get sucked in. A few weeks ago, she bought her first house–you can’t stop that story, can you?

Dave Minar as often as not, is somewhere in the vicinity, and he’ll stop to say hi. At the risk of offending the current Minar progeny, I have always felt a certain parental bond with Dave and Florence, and I’m quite sure that this is not a unique occurrence. They have created, with their family and all the great people that contribute, a special place, a place of nurturing on several levels, though they’d probably never admit to it outright. But, from the day I sat at their kitchen table almost a year ago, I’ve had the sense that they were in my corner, provided I wasn’t a half-assed pretender.

This is the first week where I have had enough free time to think about writing. I’m glad I’ve gotten something down, but we’re far from the end of my cheesemaking story, and I hear the pillow calling. We’ll pick up soon…

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