Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Book review: 'The Telling Room'

In 1991, Michael Paterniti was a newly minted MFA, a graduate of a program he calls "Storytelling School" at U of M. Broke and unemployed, he picked up a gig as the editor of Zingerman's newsletter. Through those pages, Mr. Paterniti had a peak into the storied-ness of food that, in the early 90s, put Zingerman's at the cusp of the foodie movement.

One of the articles he edited was about a cheese from Castile, Spain, a cheese he could not afford to buy at the time. And, without so much as a bite into the madeleine, we are catapulted into Mr. Paterniti's obsessive, self consciously meandering, decade-plus quest after "The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese." The book is released in hardcover today.

Mr. Paterniti's tale is part-revenge-story, part-survey-of-Spanish-history, part-how-to-publish-a-book, part-pop-philosophy-of-food-and-life. It is also about forty percent footnote, an effort to make the reader feel like she is in Ambrosio the cheesemaker's bodega, drinking glass of wine after glass of wine, listening to digression after digression, waiting for everything to coalesce loosely around the story of the family cheese, and how Ambrosio declared revenge on his best friend Julian. (Ambrosio feels very Inigo Montoya. Once I drew this parallel, "The Telling Room" read like a more factual but less entertaining "The Princess Bride," right down to the non sequitur footnotes. Brevity is the soul of wit, and Mr. Goldman certainly has that count in his favor.)

Along the way, we get asides about Walter Benjamin, about Mr. Paterniti's wife's tattoo, about the first-ever amputation by the Roman Aulus Cornelius Celsus in A.D. 1, about Mr. Paterniti's family move to Castile and assimilation into their slowed-down lifestyle. ("Everything is a digression in Castile.") These asides, while not always welcome, serve to further bolster the point: see how much life can be brought forth from one piece of properly made cheese?

In Ambrosio and the cheese, Mr. Paterniti has found his pastoral ideal, the good life thwarted by modernity. "In order to make a magical cheese, you have to pour your love and goodness. The cheese is an obligation, a referendum on you as a person , your purity and rectitude. What they were doing now was production-line stuff, making soulless cheese from soulless milk and soulless products." In the essence of the cheese, earth and sky dwell. It is the battle cry of every Old-World grandmother who has lamented packaged carrots and canned soup. In my family, we tell the story of a Banat Schwabian who first tried an apple from an American supermarket. "It looks like a picture," she said, "and it tastes like one too." Modern times are ruining us.

Blah, blah, blah.

I was partially relieved to feel the trappings of modern life bear down again upon Mr. Paterniti. I read his book on my smart phone: the jig is up, at least for me. His wife speaks for the reader during this exchange, about three-quarters through the book:
"I'm worried," she said.
"About your book."
"My book?" I said. She squeezed.
"Well--are you getting anywhere with it?"
"Of course," I said. "I'm getting all over the place with it."
Fortunately, Mr. Paterniti has deadlines, and we, at last, get the other side of Ambrosio's revenge story. "The Telling Room" is a fun diversion filled with fun diversions. Sometimes Mr. Paterniti's preoccupation with the art of storytelling gets in the way of his storytelling, but, as he suggests, that's the burden we bear. No one said modern times would be easy.


  1. This book is definitely worth a read, and seems very heartfelt by both the author and the participants in the story.