Mostly in jest, master's of fine arts degree candidates sometimes refer to their studies as Storytelling School. It's a gentle pejorative, a way of making light of years of painstakingly honing a craft.
Michael Paterniti called it this while kicking around Ann Arbor, Mich., in the early 1990s, earning a paltry wage as copy editor of the newsletter for food emporium Zingerman's. We can't know if he was good at corralling the dangling participles and run-on sentences of the famous deli's co-founder Ari Weinzweig. But reading The Telling Room, it's clear that Paterniti probably got a gold star and super-smiley face in Storytelling School.
Paterniti is one of a small group of literary journalists who, equipped with a certain unflappability of spirit, are willing to chase a story wherever it takes them and then, with even more chutzpah, to sift and palpate that story until it reifies their own most earnestly held truths.
In the Zingerman's newsletter there was a cheese. A magical, mind-bending cheese that Paterniti — a poor creative-writing type, remember — couldn't afford. "It's rich, dense, intense, a bit like Manchego, but with its own distinct set of flavors and character," said Weinzweig. Eh, sounds like a pretty good cheese. But something about the cheese, Páramo de Guzmán, captivated Paterniti, and years later, on a trip to Spain, he sought out its cheesemaker.
The Telling Room bears the subtitle "A tale of love, betrayal, revenge and the world's greatest piece of cheese." It is blurbed by Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief. Her own writing is often a study in monomaniacal, larger-than-life oddballs, so it's no surprise, and in fact The Telling Room is every bit as breathtakingly cinematic as her work on rare Everglades blooms. (Scary to think of what screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann would do with stinky cheese as muse.)
In the village of Guzmán, Spain, Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras lives a life not unlike that of his father, grandfather and ancestors before that. He lives by the season, drawing sustenance from the land around him and relishing the simple pleasures of young red wine, good friends and a proper place to evacuate his bowels (a mesa called Mon Virgo, evidently).
Paterniti meets him in the summer of 2000 in his contador, the telling room, a space in the traditional Spanish storage caves where folks gather to eat, drink and tell tales. (The Telling Room also happens to be the name of the nonprofit writing program for children that Paterniti started in 2004 in Portland, Maine.)
Sadly and slowly and with much wine drinking, Ambrosio tells the story of how his childhood best friend bilked him out of his beloved cheese, stealing the business out from under him, a diabolical Castilian svengali. The cheese nothing but a fragrant memory, Ambrosio will have his revenge.
The story sticks with Paterniti, but perhaps it's more the village, with its centuries of tradition and promise of a simpler life, that prompts the journalist to uproot his young family and relocate. The resulting book reads like Bill Buford's Heat, conveying the passions of both author and subject, but with David Foster Wallace's gift for digression and maddeningly long footnotes. There are footnotes about the first-ever amputation, Eskimos, Pringles and witches, all of them so engrossing that it's sometimes with dismay that you must rejoin the main text.
But the main text is glorious, Ambrosio and his village nearly implausibly vivid, casting our lives of parking tickets and processed foods into unfortunate contrast. Paterniti has been nominated eight times (and won once) for the National Magazine Award for his work in publications such as the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Outside, Esquire and GQ, and his skill as a storyteller lifts The Telling Room out of the "foodie nonfiction" niche.
As per whether the food in question is the world's greatest piece of cheese, it's hard to say. But this description is pretty persuasive:
"Oh, it was a strong cheese, a Herculean cheese, you could tell that immediately, tangy and tart, melting and then flaring again. With the first crumble it spread slowly, in lava flow, across the palatal landscape, tasting of minerals and luscious fattening buttercream, of chamomile and sage. It tasted of flower and dirt, manure and nectar — and perhaps of love and hate, too."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.