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The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese [Hardcover]

by Michael Paterniti
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (223 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, August 2013: The premise sounds far-fetched, even a little silly: While proofreading a deli catalog in Michigan, Michael Paterniti is bewitched by a description of cave-aged Spanish cheese; years later, disillusioned with modern life and his own “computer-soft hands,” he travels to its Spanish back-country source, where he becomes obsessed with its larger-than-life maker and his story of soul-stealing cheese-related betrayal. But don’t get too cynical (or annoyed by the sprawling footnotes) too fast, or you’ll miss the earth-stained magic of this story. Yes, Paterniti can be a hyperbolic virtuoso, “given to tilting the most quotidian events into a Viking epic”--or a Castillian tragedy. He even opens with this quote from Pascal: “Imagination magnifies small objects with fantastic exaggeration until they fill our soul.” But these “small objects,” en masse, do become soul-filling until Paterniti’s life-altering epiphany in a moonlit field of sunflowers seems like an essential human experience. This transportive culinary memoir will launch a thousand gastronomical pilgrimages. --Mari Malcolm

From Booklist

Working at renowned Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Paterniti discovered a fabulously tasty Spanish sheep’s milk cheese unlike any other. A writer by trade, Paterniti found himself fascinated by this cheese, and he embarked on a quest to find its birthplace in Castile, a small town some distance from Madrid. There he met a hulking man with a fondness for storytelling. Since Paterniti already had a predilection for tales, he became utterly entranced with this cheese-making Spaniard, Ambrosio Molinas de las Heras, who had won numerous awards and garnered kudos even from Fidel Castro. But by the time Paterniti reached him, Molinas had shut down production. Molinas’ entrepreneurial naïveté and betrayal by a business partner had bankrupted the fledgling company. Paterniti’s detailed narrative overflows into long, digressive footnotes, but the story of dashed hopes will resonate with lovers of cheese and of rural Spanish life. --Mark Knoblauch

Review

“Captivating . . . Paterniti’s writing sings, whether he’s talking about how food activates memory, or the joys of watching his children grow.”—NPR
 
“A gorgeous and impassioned monument to the art and mystery of storytelling, The Telling Room is rich, funny, humane, devastating, and beautiful. It made me want to applaud, it made me want to cry, it made me want to move to Spain. Michael Paterniti is a genius.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
 
“Unforgettable . . . a must-read for all who think of Spain as magical, who consider cheese as the ultimate gift of love, who love stories of betrayal, despair, revenge and redemption.”—The Wall Street Journal
 
The Telling Room embodies the spirit of slow food and life.”—Michael Pollan

“Elegant, strange, funny, and insightful, The Telling Room is a marvelous tale and a joyful read, a trip into a world peopled by some of the most remarkable characters—and, yes, cheese—in memory.”—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
 
“By the time you hit the tenth page of The Telling Room, you realize you’re in the hands of a storyteller so masterful, emotionally subtle, and smooth that you’re willing to follow him anywhere, even into a cave. And you will.”The Daily Beast
 
“Rich and shaggy, full of Castilian-size detours . . . one hugely likable book.”The Boston Globe
 
“Exquisite . . . [a] gripping tale. [Grade:] A”—Entertainment Weekly
 
“Breathtakingly cinematic . . . reads like Bill Buford’s Heat, conveying the passions of both author and subject, but with David Foster Wallace’s gift for digression.”The Tampa Bay Times
 
“Paterniti dives deeply into Spain’s political history, the pleasures of craft, and the motives and methods of storytelling itself.”Harper’s

“Few writers can write about the taste of food with Paterniti’s vibrancy and precision. . . . [He] is a master of finding and telling great stories (the finding, for most writers, often being as difficult as the telling) that appear to be about something small, such as cheese, but are actually about something far larger—in this case, the whole of human existence. . . . As much as The Telling Room is about a Spaniard’s quest to create a cheese that embodies all the love and pain and joy he’s ever known, it’s also the story of a writer’s quest to channel that obsession into the perfect story.”Esquire

“For my money, Paterniti is one of the most expansive and joyful writers around—big-hearted and humane and funny. This book is a wild and amazing ride.”—George Saunders, author of Tenth of December
 
“The list of writers I would read even if they were to write about a piece of cheese has always been short, but it includes Michael Paterniti. He has proved here that if you love something enough and pay a passionate enough attention to it, the whole world can become present in it. That’s true of both the cheese and the book.”—John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
 
“An amazing achievement, The Telling Room is an inspired, masterly epic that expands and refigures the parameters of the storyteller’s art.”—Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
 
“Michael Paterniti is one of the best living practitioners of the art of literary journalism, able to fully elucidate and humanize the everyday and the epic. In his hands, every subject, every moment of personal or global upheaval, is treated with the same curiosity, respect, empathy, and clear-eyed wisdom.”—Dave Eggers, author of A Hologram for the King

About the Author

Michael Paterniti is the New York Times bestselling author of Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain. His writing has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Harper’s, Outside, Esquire, and GQ, where he works as a correspondent. Paterniti has been nominated eight times for the National Magazine Award, and is the recipient of a NEA grant and two MacDowell Fellowships. He is the co-founder of a children’s storytelling center in Portland, Maine, where he lives with his wife and their three children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1
1991
 “It sat silently, hoarding its secrets.”

This particular story begins in the dusky hollows of 1991, remembered as a rotten year through and through by almost everybody living, dead, or unborn. I’m sure there were a few who had it good,  maybe even made millions off other people’s misfor- tune, but for the rest of us, there wasn’t a glimmer. January dawned with tracers over Baghdad, the Gulf War. It was a bad year for Saddam Hussein and the Israeli farmer (Scud missiles, weak harvest), the Polit- buro of the Soviet Union (dissolved), and the sawmills of British Co- lumbia (rising stumpage fees, etc.). An estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people died in a Bangladeshi cyclone. The IRA launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street, shattering the windows and scorching the wall of the room where Prime Minister John Major was meeting with his Cabinet (“I think we’d better start again, somewhere else,” said the prime minister). In the Philippines, Mount Pinatubo erupted, ejecting 30 billion metric tons of magma and aerosols, draping a thick layer of sulfuric acid over the earth, cooling temperatures while torching the ozone layer.
 
It was a brutal year for the ozone layer.

Here in America, it was no better: the rise  of Jack Kevorkian, Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis, Donald Trump’s dwindling empire. Rape, mass murder, and masturbation.* The country slopped along in a recession, and meanwhile, I wasn’t feeling so good myself.

To kick things off, I got dumped in January. I was twenty-six years old, making about $5,000 a year, pretax. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with my roommate, Miles, both of us graduate students in the creative writing program for fiction, a.k.a. Storytelling School. We each had a futon and a stereo—and everything else (two couches, black-and-white TV, waffle iron) we’d foraged from piles in front of houses on Big Trash Day.

That year, I toted around a book entitled The Great Depression of 1990, one bought on remainder for a dollar, and that predicted abso- lute global meltdown . . . in 1990.  But I, for one, wasn’t going to look like an idiot if it hit a year or two late. The advantage I had over most everyone else in the world was my lack of participation in the econ- omy, except to issue policy statements, from the couch, before our bliz- zardy TV screen of black-and-white pixels. The eleven o’clock news brought us Detroit anchorman Bill Bonds and all the bad acid and strange perversions  of the year—the William Kennedy Smith trial, the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Rodney King beating—all deliv- ered from beneath his superb toupee, woven it seemed with fine Incan silver.

Nineteen-ninety-one was the year we were to graduate, and as the months progressed toward that spring rite of passage, a funny thing happened: We, the storytellers, could not get our stories published— anywhere. We typed in fits of Kerouacian ecstacy, swaddled our stories in manila envelopes, sent them out to small journals across the coun- try. The rejections came back in our own self-addressed envelopes, like homing pigeons.

So we stewed in our obscurity—and futility. We were Artists. We* worked as course  assistants  and teachers  of  Creative  Writing  101, reading Wallace Stevens poems to the uvulas  of the yawning under- grad horde, moving ourselves to inspiration while the class spoke among itself. We kept office hours in a holding pen with sixteen other teachers, and then went and drank cheap beer at Old Town Tavern, swapping lines from our rejection letters. As it began to dawn on us that the end of our cosseted academic ride was near, the tension ratch- eted so high that we started spending extra time with the only people who were consistently more miserable than we were: the poets.
* Mike Tyson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Pee-wee Herman.

In pictures from our graduation, we—my posse and I—look so innocent, like kids really, kids with full heads of hair and skinny bod- ies and a glint of fear in our eyes, gazing out at the savage world and our futures. You can almost see our brains at work in those photos, now just hours away from the cruelest epiphany: Those preciously imagined short story collections and novels, copied and bound lov- ingly at Kinko’s, called The Shape of  Grief or What the Helix Said,* qualified us for, well, almost . . . exactly . . . nothing.

Which is what led me to a local deli, a place called Zingerman’s, to see if they needed an extra sandwich-maker on weekends.  This was Zingerman’s before it did  $44 million in annual sales and possessed a half million customers, but it was already an Ann Arbor legend, a fa- bled arcade  of fantastic food, a classic, slightly cramped New York– style deli in the Midwest, with a tin ceiling, black-and-white tiled floor, and the yummiest delicacies from around the world. The shelves over- flowed with bottles of Italian lemonade, exotic marmalade spreads, and tapenades. The brothy smell of matzo ball soup permeated the place. On Saturday mornings, before Michigan football games, people thronged, forming a line down Kingsley Street. The sandwiches cost twice as much as anywhere  else, and whenever we splurged as students, we’d go there and stand in the long line, the longer the better actually, just to prolong the experience. Then we’d order from colorful chalk- boards hung from the ceiling, detailing a cornucopia of sandwiches with names like “Gemini Rocks the House,” “Who’s Greenberg Any- way?,” and “The Ferber Experience,” each made on homemade farm bread  or grilled challah or Jewish rye, stuffed with Amish chicken breast or peppered ham or homemade pastrami, with Wisconsin muen- ster or Switzerland Swiss or Manchester creamy cheddar, and topped with applewood-smoked bacon or organic sunflower sprouts or honey mustard.
* Mine was entitled  Augie  Twinkle’s  Lament,  and detailed—some  might  say excruciatingly—the progress of a minor league pitcher to his  final game on the mound, where, after being  shelled, he exits over the center-field fence, discarding his uniform, piece by piece, in grief-stricken striptease. From there, left only in his codpiece, he goes on a laundry-stealing binge . . . and the rest, you’ll have to trust me, is heartrending, humorous, and deeply compelling.
 
In the days before the rise of gourmand culture, before our obses- sion with purity and pesticides, before the most fetishistic of us could sit over plates of Humboldt Fog expounding on our favorite truffles or estate-bottled olive oil, Zingerman’s preached a new way of thinking about food: Eat the best, and eat homemade. Why choke down over- salted, processed chicken soup when you might slurp Zingerman’s rich stock, with its tender carrots and hint of rosemary? Why suffer any old chocolate when you might indulge in handcrafted, chocolate- covered clementines from some picturesque village in northern Italy, treats  that  exploded  in your mouth,  the  citrus  flooding  in tingles across the tongue with the melted cocoa spreading beneath it, lifting and wrapping the clementine once again, but differently now, in the sweetest chocolate-orange cradle of sensory  pleasure? Judging by the towering shelves of rare, five-star products from around the world— the quinces and capers, the salamis and spoonfruits, the sixteen-year- old balsamic vinegar and Finnish black licorice—the quest for higher and higher gustatory ecstasies never ceased.

If Zingerman’s preached a new way of thinking about food, it was by practicing the old ways, by trying to make latkes as they’d been made a hundred years ago, by returning to traditional recipes. The idea was to deepen the experience of eating by giving customers a sense of culinary history and geography, to ask questions like: Why are bagels round?

 To my mind, such inquiry and excellence deserved me, and even if I was only going to build sandwiches, I would beam my own excel- lence in perfect slathers of mayo and mustard. After all, I needed a job, and the food and the karma were so good at Zingerman’s, it felt like a place I could make home for a while.

So one June day found me hiking up the steep stairs to the office above the deli and presenting myself as the answer to Zingerman’s problems, whatever its problems were. I came armed with my résumé bearing the proud monogram MFA, and within three minutes, two of them spent waiting, one of the deli mistresses set me straight.
“We don’t have anything right now,” she said, as seven phones rang at once, and turned back to business.
A few days later, the deli called. They wanted to see  me regarding a special opportunity. I beelined back to the office and stood before the deli woman again. “I noticed you’ve done some proofreading,” she said casually,  her eyes skimming my  résumé  to jog  specifics.  “Ari writes all the newsletters himself, and we could use someone to check it each   month.” It wasn’t for sure,  my new boss cautioned. And it might be four to six hours a month. We could try one first. To see how it went.

I thought I heard something like eight dollars an hour. “Done,” I said.
I left with a folder clutched tightly under my arm and a new sproing in my step. The newsletter, the monthly newsletter! It sat in stacks in the store. Everyone from the ebullient hard-core gourmands to the morose doctoral students read  it while waiting in line, especially because it contained a menu and you couldn’t read the chalkboards from a mile away. But it was more than that: It w...
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