Food fanatics and idle eaters alike would be hard-pressed to ignore the past decade's apparently limitless explosion of interest in stories about food and its cast of characters — its growers, its makers, its foragers, its cooks.
It's an explosion that has in turn led to a correspondingly limitless explosion of food memoirs, and if you are as burned out on the genre as you should be (which is to say, as I am), you will approach Michael Paterniti's "The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese" with a certain skeptical distance, if not outright dread.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Ostensibly the tale of the world's greatest piece of cheese — a claim that's right upfront in the book's subtitle — "The Telling Room" announces itself with great fanfare, yoking its story on Page 1 to the first Gulf War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a Bangladeshi cyclone and other high dramas of 1991. That was the year Paterniti, then an underemployed Ann Arbor grad student, first heard tell of said cheese, a Spanish sheep's milk delicacy called Páramo de Guzmán whose allegedly exquisite flavor and high-romantic back story — which entails the love, betrayal and revenge of the remaining subtitle — came to haunt the author for the next 20-odd years.
The mystery of Páramo de Guzmán — how and why its cheese-maker was, or was not, betrayed by his best friend; and how he did, or did not, plan to murder him in return — drove Paterniti to travel to the tiny town of Guzmán, in the high plains of Castile, to track down the man himself, a farmer and fabulist named Ambrosio Molinas de las Heras who in Paterniti's early pages comes across as straight out of Slow Food central casting. It spurred him to return again and again, to pitch a book on the cheese to his agent, and, eventually, to move his wife and small children to Ambrosio's fairy-tale village to carry on with his quest to capture both the cheese-maker's story and a more meaningful way of life.
In truth, for the first 100 pages or so, Paterniti's story is glossed with such a shellac of rustic quirk and charm that it's a challenge to find a foothold. Sure, it's smartly told, full of expansive digressions on everything from Pringles chips to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. Paterniti is an accomplished magazine writer with prodigious (borderline obsessive) research skills and enough of a self-deprecating streak to keep things from getting too greasy. But it's not until halfway through the book, in a few moments of deft narrative sleight-of-hand, that the author shows himself to be a trickster, and what was an above-average journey of foodie self-discovery cracks open into something altogether more interesting.
Because the stuff about the cheese? About the pleasures of food and family and finding meaning in the old ways of life? That's just the framework. What Paterniti's really writing about is storytelling itself.
Molinas drew Paterniti into his world one yarn at a time, sitting him down in the cool light of his telling room — an ancient hillside cave where the fruits of the harvest are tallied and stored — and spinning tales that were at times suspiciously tall yet still utterly engaging. As Paterniti acknowledges, he was an eager listener even if, he notes, he quickly became less journalist than hopeful participant.
"For a while there," writes Paterniti, "I became Ambrosio's mini-me, espousing the simple sayings and irreverent gospel of the big man, repeating his nuggets of wisdom. And somewhere along the way, he must have sensed more than my interest, he must have intuited my malleability. He was going to make me the eighty-first citizen of an eighty-person village, and I would tell his story to the world. And for a moment I wanted it more than he did."
As a writer, I've been there. I've found myself in thrall to charismatic subjects, and I know this feeling all too well. It's a feeling that always comes with an uncomfortable traveling mate: the professional realization that to actually do your job you are going to have to diversify your sources. You have to get the other side, or sides, of the story.
This is the conundrum Paterniti explores with humor and insight through the remainder of the book, as he grapples with both writer's block and his own reluctance to pursue the dodgy truth of Molinas' story, which may reveal his friend to be less than a perfect martyr on the altar of artisanal food. His wisdom is hard won: After he tried, and failed, for years to deliver a publishable manuscript, his British publisher canceled his contract, leaving him 18,000 pounds in debt. But whatever creative agonies Paterniti suffered, the result is worth it.
As he spins out the tale of Páramo de Guzmán, Paterniti returns repeatedly to the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, which in this small village pitted family against family, neighbor against neighbor. Seventy years later, the scars are still raw, the process of reconciliation is anything but smooth, and, notes Paterniti, there's a strong case to be made for leaving buried truths safe in the ground. It's a dramatic, high stakes analog to the mystery of Molinas' cheese. Because, "if people started digging," writes Paterniti, "who knew where it all might end? … Everybody — everybody — was implicated."
Martha Bayne, author of "Soup & Bread Cookbook: Building Community One Pot at a Time," is a Chicago-based writer and editor.
'The Telling Room'
By Michael Paterniti, Dial, 368 pages, $27