Memory being what it is, I don’t remember exactly the first time I spoke to Ig Vella. Perhaps the time when I called him to complain about a piece of cheese, or why some wheels were absolutely delicious, and others a little gummy.
His response was honest, direct, and challenging, without the slightest hint of hostility or pandering. “Dry Jack is gummy until it is aged at least 14 months, then it turns nutty, but the distributors keep bugging me for the younger stuff cause it’s cheaper.”
I remember I first met with him in the former brewery that had been transformed into his creamery.You can imagine, it was with some consternation that I entered the small office that doubled as a cheese store.
I’m not a wilting violet, but generally, when the first two things you say to someone are less than complimentary about his cheesemaking, something in which he took great pride, you can expect at least a cold shoulder, or, given his reputation, something more. He could not have greeted me more cordially.
We are both frank people, who enjoy people who speak their minds. But the true test of our friendship came, not when we conspired to get me elected president of the American Cheese Society (ACS) in order to rewrite the bylaws to ensure a majority of cheese makers sit on the board, so that those who had more money, the distributors, retailers, and the brokers, could not keep voting to have the convention in hotels so expensive, many cheese makers could not afford to attend, and when most goat cheese producers could not attend, since it takes place in the
heart of their milking season.
Nor was it when, despite my becoming president as planned, everyone still voted to have the conference in expensive hotels and at the same time of year. But it was, when chosen to help judge the ACS cheese competition, when leaving for the day, I ran into Ig in the hallway. I jabbered on about this gooey yellow unrecognizable piece of cheese that some idiot had entered as a Feta. Had it been entered in another category I might’ve liked it. But it had nothing at all to do with Feta!
Ig fixed his gaze on me, without rancor, but with great intensity, and explained that that was his cheese. There is no greater test of the quality of a friend, than when you put your foot in your mouth so far that it comes out the other end, and they don’t hold it against you.
Once we had him speak at an event on the Vella family’s history making Dry Jack, for the California Milk Advisory Board. Right off the bat, he made sure everybody knew that his family was not the ones who invented dry Jack.
That honor accrued to a distributor in San Francisco, who during the first world war, was short on Parmesan, and long on Jack. Turning a lemon into lemonade, he took some of the wheels that had dried out in the back of his walk-in, and sold them as a replacement for Parmesan.
He went on to explain, in the most politically incorrect way, that
in the old days they used to age Jack on wooden planks in the delis, and that once, while being interviewed, he had mentioned that the number of complaints the owners had to put up with from strident housewives he colorfully called Dago Sopranos. The PR people turned pale!
Another time I called to find out why he put chocolate and pepper on the outside of every wheel of his dry Jack. He responded, “when my father grew up in Italy, they made a cheese they rub with a special dirt. We tried a whole bunch of things, but chocolate and pepper came the closest.”
We discussed writing a book together “Shelf Life, What we Gave Away for Everything We Got,” How convenience and the desire for shelf life brought untimely ends to a number of wonderful, life-enhancing things like the taste of real, fresh cottage cheese, family farming, and homemade ice cream.
He told me how his father, Tom, was asked by Kraft to help them develop a way to extend the life of cottage cheese. He refused, then went back into the make room that same day and told his cheese makers to stop making cottage cheese, that the day’s of “real” were coming to a close. (Tom had helped Kraft make Velveeta)
Some of the obits have referred to him as a Godfather, as if, everyone Italian is a mafioso. I prefer to think of him instead as a Living Treasure, who drank the cup of life to the last drop, and then moved on.
I loved Ig Vella not for his cheesemaking; nor for the fact that as an antique collector, he owned one of the original machines Thomas Jefferson used to sign the laws; nor for the fact that he would argue with his dad toe to toe, right in the store; nor for the fact that he changed the formula for his father’s Blue cheese without telling him, after talking with Neville McNaughton, and improved the texture and flavor of it immensely; nor for all the pastas I had with his cheese sprinkled on top; but for the fact that he was a man who was not afraid to be himself and made no apologies.
In his own way, he spoke with humility, telling us what he perceived to be the truth. He was wise, and wisdom does not come with age automatically, only when you have lived life on your own terms, and survived the discussion.
In respect to his colorful language, his courage in the face of mediocrity, his warmth that sometimes got too hot, the economic sacrifices he made holding true to the quality of what he made, his lovely daughters, and his stubborn adherence to old world values, I wish to remember him as he really was, rough edges and all.
To paraphrase Robert Burns:
“Give fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for all that:
The man of independent mind looks and laughs at all that:
As the pith of sense, and pride of worth, are higher rank than all that.”
Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions,
a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food
make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter.
Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit and blog with Dan at www.managenaturally.com.
Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter
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