August 25, 2013

Author Q & A: 'Cheese' stands alone

Michael Paterniti's new book, about the 'World's Greatest Piece of Cheese,' earns the Portland writer and Telling Room co-founder robust praise.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Michael Paterniti caught the attention of the literary world with his first book, "Driving Mr. Albert." The New York Times characterized it as "enchantingly eccentric."

In that book, the Portland-based writer took a cross-country car trip with the pathologist who performed Albert Einstein's autopsy, Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey.

For whatever reason, Harvey removed Einstein's brain and kept it at his home. Paterniti tracked him down, and offered to drive him from the good doctor's home in New Jersey to California, brain in the backseat, where Harvey was to meet with Einstein's granddaughter.

"Driving Mr. Albert" was the travelogue of their adventure, and a fun one at that.

Paterniti is back with "The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese."

It's all a bit too complicated to explain. So we will allow Paterniti his own words to describe this book, published by The Dial Press. It is getting a huge amount of national attention, and Paterniti is poised for a deluge of fawning. 

Q: This book caught my attention for many reasons, the primary one being the title. You wrote a book about a piece of cheese? Please explain. What motivated your exploration of the subject?

A: Ha -- yes! I wrote a book about cheese and mice are lining up everywhere to buy it. But then there's also the "love, betrayal, and revenge" part.

Actually the whole thing began more than 20 years ago, when I was a broke grad student, picking up extra money proofreading the newsletter at Zingerman's deli, a fantastic foodie emporium in Ann Arbor, Mich. As part of a Spanish food celebration, one of the owners, Ari Weinzweig, had brought back this strange, artisanal cheese from Europe, called Paramo de Guzman.

He was in love with it -- and he wrote a short, but beguiling entry about it, describing how the cheese was made by hand, from an old family recipe, from the milk of Churra sheep, by a man named Ambrosio who aged it for a year in his family cave, then soaked it in olive oil and sealed it in a white tin.

It sounded to me like the beginning of a fairytale, with the cheese standing in for purity and faith. But it was also the most expensive cheese the deli had ever sold, and I, for one, couldn't afford it at the time.

Years later while on assignment to write a profile of the great Spanish chef Ferran Adria, I went on an off-day to the tiny village of Guzman, where the cheesemaker lived, just to try it. 

Q: Did you fall in love with this cheese the first time you tasted it? Did it live up to its description as "rich, dense, intense"?

A: Well, as it turned out, I didn't get to taste it on that first visit. Or the second. Or the one after that. That came later. But first there was a story, of course -- there always is! -- told to me by this Ambrosio, who ends up being a 260-pound hulking force of nature. Improbably, his cheese, which he first made in a stable, had become world famous, eaten by kings and queens and presidents. Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra were served Paramo de Guzman. Fidel Castro allegedly tried to buy all of Ambrosio's stock.

America's most famous cheesemonger, Steve Jenkins, called it "excruciatingly delicious," one of the finest cheeses he's tried in his 40 years in the profession.

As Paramo de Guzman's popularity grew, Ambrosio, who was just a farmer, brought in his best friend, a lawyer named Julian, to help with the expansion, including a move to a little stone factory. Ambrosio alleged that Julian would bring him contracts that Ambrosio would sign without reading, because he trusted his friend. And one day he put his name to a contract that signed away his rights to the company. In essence, he said Julian stole the cheese from him. 

Q: What were the challenges of this particular subject. And perhaps related, why was this book so hard for you to complete?

A: When I first met Ambrosio, he was plotting to kill Julian. This was real, or the idea of how and when seemed to be playing out in real time. So there was a good deal of waiting and wondering. And then something else happened, too. Our family moved to Guzman, population 80, for a short spell, and we became part of Ambrosio's family, as well as the fabric of a village that seemed to be moving backwards in time. The more time I spent there, and away from my harried American life, the less I wanted any of it to end. And then, I became more and more implicated in Ambrosio's blood feud. Finally, I was still waiting to try the last of the original cheese, the last tin of which sat down in the bowels of the family cave. 

Q: This is an interesting follow to "Driving Mr. Albert." You have at least two witty, eccentric books to your credit, at least that I am aware of. Is this your niche?

A: You're nice to say so, but sometimes I feel as if my niche is just trying to write the story at hand, whatever it may be. In my day job as a magazine writer, I'm covering all sorts of stories, not all of them so whimsical-sounding, from the genocide trials in Cambodia to the earthquake in Haiti to the tsunami in Japan. What really interests me, though, is this constant experiment with narrative, with storytelling. I'm constantly wondering: What is the perfect form for this story? And then how far can it be pushed? 

Q: I'd like to ask you about The Telling Room here in Portland. You are co-founder, correct? And you worked the name into the title of the book. How are the two related?

A: Well, the writing center was actually named for the same thing the book is. In Guzman, there are these caves that date back to Roman times, and inside these caves have been built these cramped, cozy rooms, known as "telling rooms," where the people of the village gather to eat, drink, and tell stories by the fire. This is the place where they share their most intimate secrets and dreams, but it's also the place where they keep the past alive by the telling of these stories. When my wife, Sara, and I were coming up with a name for the writing center, Sara said, "We just want to make a telling room for Portland," and though it was already the name of my book, we just went with it. 

Q: This is a good chance for you to make a pitch for The Telling Room. What makes it so special and dear to your heart? Are you still involved?

A: It's truly a magical place, a buzzing hive full of great, soulful people. And it's been amazing to watch it grow over the last 10 years. We see about 2,500 kids a year now, from all walks of life, and have about 200 teachers and volunteers. It's the energy of what happens there every day, though, the mining of stories, the openness and wild creativity of the kids and young adults, that is most thrilling. Come in on the wildest nor'easter day when the papers are full of bad news, and I promise you'll walk out with a smile on your face. It really gives me hope every time. It makes a lot of us feel really connected to this amazing city, and the various generations of people in it. 

Q: What is your next project?

A: Finishing "Moby Dick," which I've never read before, and am loving. And I'm working on a couple of magazine stories, one about the aftermath of war and one about food. And the banjo, that's the big one. If it goes well, maybe I'll do a banjo rock opera of "Moby Dick."

Does that sound eccentric enough?

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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