Skating Over the Cracks


I picked up the frayed leather skates as I had a hundred times before. Puffs of lint and dust made me sneeze and stop to consider why I kept them. With their life on the ice long gone, now they were only a reminder of the hope my mother once held in her heart.

They are Nestor Johnson speed skates, size 8, made in Chicago in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression. They were the first thing my mother bought with her own money and may have been her dearest possession.  

She grew up in a family of Italian immigrants with no money to spare. Her mother said they were lucky to be in Meaderville, a neighborhood of Butte, Montana, where people knew and trusted each other. The local mercantile extended so much credit that some families would repay it for the rest of their lives. But, as her mother said, at least they ate while those in bigger cities were starving.  

Ice was everywhere through the frigid winters in Butte. She and her friends salvaged a single skate from the local dump and took turns using it, one-legged, on a frozen settling pond. My mother discovered a love for gliding.

At twelve she got a job after school washing dishes at the Rocky Mountain Cafe in Meaderville. By the time her shift ended near midnight, her hands would be cracked from the dish water so her mother would wrap them in salve and strips of cloth.

Her mother, my grandmother, welcomed the extra money, but also wanted her daughter to have the hope needed to imagine a better life. My grandmother saved small amounts of my mother’s pay, then gave it back to her in a sum to use however she liked. That was how she bought the best speed skates then on the market, Nestor Johnson, many sizes too big so she’d never outgrow them.

When I gave speed skating a try, nearly forty years later, my mother gave those skates to me, wadded with cotton in the toes to make them fit. Demonstrating how the cotton worked was her way of bequeathing me her resilience. And now holding those skates in my hand, I write this as my way of bequeathing generations of resilience to my own son.

Martyrs in Training

My father was an accomplished alcoholic in a town that considered this more of a career than a crime.

Before taking some teen-age independence, I spent most of my days helping my mother try to control my father’s behavior. Every night after school she'd load my sister and me into the back seat of our faded green Buick and drive up the steep hills of Butte to the Steward copper mine where my father worked as a boilermaker.

Arriving just as the shift whistle blew, my mother then squirmed “on pins and needles” until we spotted my father cross the mine yard on his way to the showers. On nights when our wait grew into an empty hour, we knew that he'd gone before the end of the shift, straight to his favorite bar.

Usually, though, we’d take him directly from the mine yard to his mother's house a few blocks away. There, my mother, younger sister and I spent a tense hour or two in my grandmother's overheated front room while her son drank a quart of beer and finished off a pint of whiskey, his second or more of the day, that she’d hidden for him in the bathroom.

Our grandmother wasn’t a cruel person, but her life had been hard and she resented us for taking her son. Widowed at a young age, she worked as a cleaning woman in Catholic schools for less than a living wage while her mother raised my father and his sister. Grandma never had the privilege of seeing life from a gentler point of view.

My sister and I often passed the time pretending to cook in her large barren pantry. Our concoctions, which may have passed for an actual meal in many local households, always involved a boiling pot of water with salt, pepper and whatever stale bread was on the shelves. Beneath the shelves, behind brown paper bags filled with other brown paper bags, were my father's empty whiskey bottles. His mother put much more effort into supporting her son’s habit than objecting to it. She believed he was all she had left in the world and she was keeping him with her however she could.

From my grandmother’s house, we’d head to my father’s favorite haunt, the Atlas bar. The Atlas had a tarnished chrome Art Deco entry that was out of tune with its current clientele. Filled with patrons after a shift change, though, its narrow dark interior did resemble a mine tunnel. This was where my father felt most at home. Without us, it probably would have been his home. It was a futile struggle to pull him away.

No matter the season or time of day, we never knew how long we’d be parked in front of the Atlas. After an hour, especially in winter, my mother would start honking the car horn which, of course, did nothing more than vent her frustration. After confirming yet again that the horn had absolutely no influence, she’d send me into the Atlas to get him.

I was about eight years old when she first insisted that I go. She coaxed me by saying he would only come out because I asked him. Quite an ego trip for an eight-year-old so I went with conviction. Eventually though, the reality of my surrogate role became obvious and I refused, saying that I hated the smell of stale whiskey. So my mother plied me with guilt. “Well, at least he’s not a mean drunk”, she’d say, implying that if I were a good daughter, I’d care enough to get him home.

It was clear to me by then, as I attempted to separate him from the thing he loved most, that my father had only one care in the world and it had nothing to do with us. Usually he’d just tell me to tell my mother, “to go to hell”. He’d come out when he was damn ready. Then I'd argue with her about other options like divorce or, at least, leaving him at the Atlas. All this accomplished was to convince her I was a renegade copy of my father and she now had two pig-heads on her hands.

During the horn-blowing segment of this script, one of my father’s friends often stumbled over to the car to impress us with the loveliness of Ireland and the holiness of the Catholic Church. Jimmy Harrington, one of the oldest cronies, had a brogue so heavy we often didn’t understand him. My mother nodded occasionally and he never seemed the wiser.

One frigid night through an open crack at the top of the car window, he told us we had the patience of a Saint and would surely be rewarded in Heaven for such willing acceptance of Hell on Earth. Then he smiled, tipped his cap to the virtues of our martyrdom, and proclaimed what a lucky asshole my father was to have us.

Such sacrifice will surely be worthless on Judgment Day, but it felt good to finally hear someone notice that this was a lot to ask of a child.

Cheese Country Tours ~ Cowgirl Creamery

Cowgirl Creamery MT Tam Cheese in Brine
A herd of MT Tam cheeses float in brine
At every cheese-related event I’ve attended, at least one person has said that they fell in love with cheese on a Cowgirl Creamery Tour. Every time I take a tour there myself, I understand another aspect of why that happens.

There is the lovely cheese that can be experienced in all stages of its development.  There is the rare glimpse of people who so love their work, they plan to spend a lifetime perfecting their ability to do it. And there is the serendipitous yet thoughtful story of how Cowgirl Creamery came to be. All in all, there is a bit of magic in the Cowgirl air that infuses more than award-winning cheese molds.

Making MT Tam at Cowgirl Creamery
Making MT Tam at Cowgirl Creamery
Vivian Straus Leads Cowgirl Creamery Tour
Vivien Straus begins Cowgirl tour
Vivien Straus, whose family has historic roots in both the dairy industry and in Marin county, led our tour at Cowgirl. The Straus Family Creamery was the first certified organic dairy in the United States and Vivien’s mother, Ellen Straus, founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) which has inspired similar preservation efforts across the country.

Straus Dairy was also the first milk producer for Cowgirl cheeses and remains its principal provider. Vivien began the tour with a history of Sonoma/Marin agriculture and its direct influence on the success of San Francisco during the Gold Rush era.  Then she demonstrated the basic process of cheesemaking (video below) before we saw it done by artisan professionals.  We completed our experience by tasting MT Tam at various stages of ripeness, starting with samples that had been produced that day.

Cowgirl conducts regular tours of its Petaluma creamery and the original facility at Point Reyes Station where Red Hawk cheese is produced. For families and groups with young children, the Point Reyes tour is recommended as best for those visitors.

The Point Reyes Creamery has plenty of seating area and is also home to Cowgirl’s Tomales Bay Foods Company which offers a variety of specialty foods and dry goods.  If you aren't smitten already, though, be prepared to fall in love with cheese!

March Goes Rouge

Mount McLoughlin overlooking Central Point
The Month of March has hosted notable celebrations since early Roman times.  Today its most popular association is with Saint Patrick, drawing crowds on March 17th to Dublin, Boston, and even Butte, Montana.

But the tastiest mid-March party on the planet has been quietly growing near the Rogue River in southern Oregon for more than a decade with roots extending into the 1930's when Rogue Creamery founder, Tom Vella, held annual community picnics in Central Point on the company grounds.

Rogue Creamery Shop in Central Point
David Gremmels and Cary Bryant purchased Rogue Creamery from the Vella Family in 2002 and re-established Tom's tradition of public celebrations.  Starting with a few years of informal gatherings in their cheese "make" room, David and Cary went on to organize the first Oregon Cheese Festival in 2005.

Tillamook Cheesemongers go Incognito!
A year after launching the Festival, David and Cary helped to form the Oregon Cheese Guild which is now responsible for producing the event. Under its guidance, the Oregon Cheese Festival has grown to over 4,000 visitors from an original 100 and delivers an affordable, unforgettable touch of magic for all age and interest levels.

Click to Open Menu PDF
Click to Open Poster PDF
The 2015 Oregon Cheese Festival happens on Saturday, March 14th at the Rogue River Creamery in Central Point, Oregon.  General Admission is $15 and includes a full day of tasting, entertainment, and fun-to-swallow education. Those 12 years old and under are welcome free of charge.

Located at 311 North Front Street (HWY 99) in Central Point, events take place in two heated tents covering over 15,000 square feet.  It's a big, warm, and wonderful party.

A Cheesemakers Dinner (menu), benefiting the non profit 501 (c) (6) Oregon Cheesemaker Guild, is scheduled on Friday, March 13th, from 6:15 P.M. – 9:00 P.M, at the Inn at the Commons in Medford, OR. Each course highlights a cheese made by one of the Festival's artisans, paired with a local wine or beer. Master of Ceremonies for the dinner, John Greeley of Gourmet Foods International, will also present pairing and appreciation classes, free with Festival Admission on Saturday. (Festival Details and Registration.)

Mid-March at the Rogue will certainly deliver a Touch of Heaven, if not a Pot of Gold.  Attending your first Oregon Cheese Festival will mark the beginning of an annual affair!

2014 Photos and Video
Rogue Creamery's Oregon Blue
Official Rogue Creamery Truck
Outstanding Rogue River Blue
Culture Magazine Table
Antique Milk Bottles
Oregon Bee Store
Clear Creek Pear Brandy
Judges - Lassa Skinner & Janet Fletcher 
Oregon Olive Mill
Sarah Marcus & Jim Hoffman - Briar Rose Creamery
Peggy Smith & Sue Conley - Cowgirl Creamery
Allison & Don Hooper - Vermont Creamery
Curds and Whey Goat Cheese
Rogue River Brewing
Handmade Cheese Plates

Intensive Cheesemaking at Oakland IUH

Feta Curds draining overnight in Cheesecloth
Feta curds draining
Ruby stretches Mozzarella
Ruby stretches Mozzarella
Anyone near the San Francisco Bay Area who is looking for a cheese making class is fortunate to have an excellent option in Oakland. The Institute of Urban Homesteading (IUH) offers a range of cheese and milk product courses that are an exceptional value and experience. Cheesemaking 101, 102 and 103 each cover a specific range of practically produced cheeses.  I took a weekend intensive which distills all three courses into two mentally and physically gratifying days. The course instructor, and overall guiding spirit of the Institute, is K. Ruby Blume, a person who, without question, embodies what she believes.  She is the essence of capability.

Ruby's stake in urban homesteading began with bees. Sparkybeegirl, her alter ego, makes an exquisite Mead, or Honey Wine, from her own hives. It’s not surprising, then, that Ruby’s cheese making class was a model of busy but focused project management.  By Sunday afternoon we completed ten cheese and milk related products, most of which we delightfully consumed with a closing feast. As outlined in its Mission Statement, a fundamental goal of the Institute is “to make what we present simple and digestible— to give you enough information and hands-on experience to get started on your own the very next day.”

Cheese Class Feast
Cheese Class Feast
True to that end, Ruby’s approach was concise, engaged and memorable. We started learning about the magic of milk cultures by making yogurt, then built on that process as we progressed through Feta, Ricotta, Mozzarella, Camembert and even butter.  All the while, Ruby demonstrated, encouraged and explained what we needed to experiment and succeed on our own. It’s hard to imagine there could be a better bargain for this type of instruction anywhere else in the Bay Area.

Classes at the Institute of Urban Homesteading are added regularly but fill up quickly.  As an appetizer before a live class, consider getting Ruby’s book, Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, which she co-authored with Rachel Kaplan. However you choose to take the cheese making classes with Ruby, either individually or in an intensive weekend,  you are bound to gain an appreciation and capability that will enhance the rest of your life.