Frequently, when Cara Warren—a Brooklyn-based cheese vendor—approaches a cheese counter to sell the Camemberts, Bries and French dairy products she’s promoting, the transaction feels more like a friendly get-together than a business deal. That’s thanks, in part, to the proliferation of queer women in her industry.
“We can vibe, start to speak and have this laid-back vibe,” Cara says. “I can connect with that person, easily converse about cheeses, and it’s not uncomfortable—we work together to make something great happen.”
Cara is just one of many, many, so-called “chesbians” (that is, cheese lesbians; thank one monger at Murray’s Cheese for coining that term) running the artisanal cheese industry. She’s worked as a monger and cheese educator since 2005, when she was “still playing the bi card,” but meeting more and more gay women through cheese encouraged her to come out as openly gay.
“We’d [be] breaking down the cheese counter, go out for a beer, and swap stories. [I realized,] This is neat, everyone’s like me and interested in the same things. I became more comfortable being myself, after seeing cool people in positive relationships,” Cara recalls. “The cheese counter itself can be a goofy, joke-around place. It’s serious, but it’s the hospitality industry.”
Cara began to realize, as many a lesbian cheese-lover (like myself) has also noticed, that there’s “an intense, queer, gay lesbian scene in cheese that’s maybe not the same in other industries.” Seeing gay people function in the real world helped Cara feel like everything was going to be OK. And an added bonus was that her job also helped her meet women.
“When I would go out to meet other women at Cubbyhole, I would say, ‘I’m a cheesemonger,’ and I would judge based on their reaction whether I wanted to continue the conversation more,” Cara recalls. Cheesemongering became the perfect queer icebreaker; from seeing women’s “over the top crazy excitement” at her profession or awkward response, Cara knew who she wanted to pursue romantically. Her current girlfriend is very into sourdough fermentation, so they’re the perfect pair, she says.
So what is it about working in cheese that draws a queer and lesbian female community?
“It’s the storytelling, and the fact that cheese is kind of, like, this outsider food already,” says Cara. “It’s [a] subculture that somehow works in the realm of gay culture; they intersect at the point where it can be artsy and fantastic and over-the-top, and you can be loud and proud.”
Compared to other specialty food products, like wine, cheese is also more economically accessible—a passion for everyone, not just snobs.
“Cheese people are just really open and curious and supportive and accessible,” says cheese educator and monger Rachel Freier. “There’s no judgement across the board, it doesn’t matter who you are; there’s this crazy passion that unites us. I come across a lot of queer people, and we’re all in it for the cheese. And in the name of cheese, it’s a great community.”
“Lesbians love cheese, but then again who doesn’t? I suppose you could fit quite a bit of cheese in the back of that Subaru,” says Boston-based cheesemonger, “cheese whisperer,” and educator Hannah Morrow. She attributes the women-led history of cheesemaking in America as one source of female “kinship” in cheese, as well as cheese’s historic role in female bonding events, whether that be luncheons or book clubs. She doubts queer women like cheese more than straight women (or at least, has no tangible evidence to prove it), but believes, “Queer women may gravitate to the cheese industry for its acceptance.” A communal love for cheese is just part of the lure for lesbians to work in this matriarchal, feminist field—LGBTQ mongers and makers help introduce and mentor newcomers to the world of cheese.
"To be able to share our love for cheese everyday through our food truck is also our way of sharing our love, joy, and authenticity—basically our queerness with our community.”
Zara Ahmed and her wife Abby met while working as cheesemongers at the (lesbian-owned) Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco. Within days of working together, the couple fell in love and “have continued to eat good cheese, a steady theme in our self care,” Zara says. A queer friend had originally introduced her to Cowgirl when Zara expressed interest in moving from LA to the Bay Area for the camaraderie and community there, something both she had her now-wife found in artisanal cheese. They’ve since settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, where they’ve melted their cheesy values with passion for vending dairy products, via a food truck they’ve named Raclette Machine.
“When we each came out, we made a conscious effort to live as authentically as we can and part of that is living life with as much joy as we can find,” Zara says. “Artisan cheese represents that for us. It’s a type of food that’s rich in culture and calls for stories and sharing experience as you enjoy it. To be able to share our love for cheese everyday through our food truck is also our way of sharing our love, joy, and authenticity—basically our queerness with our community.”
Beyond the staff and customers of several lesbian-run cheese projects like Raclette Machine, the internet has also helped formulate a cheese-centric LGBTQ, or, as one popular Facebook group declares it, an LGBrieTQ, community.
“I had a video of me breaking down a wheel of cheese get like, over a literal thousand likes and responses from lesbians all over which was wild and fun and weird."
Dmitri Orion started their career in cheese at a shop run by a gay woman, and staffed by many LGBT colleagues. “It was definitely super cool to see a passionate and gay woman be really successful in her field,” Dmitri says. Dmitri wasn’t quite aware of how many LGBT women and nonbinary people worked in cheese until becoming involved in Cheese Instagram. (“Which is rad!” they say.) Dmitri has noticed some niche interest in their social media due to their combination of being gay and a cheesemonger.
“I had a video of me breaking down a wheel of cheese get like, over a literal thousand likes and responses from lesbians all over which was wild and fun and weird,” they say. Still, Dmitri sees chesbians as a less-than-prevalent subculture, citing the “valid” popularity of “more stereotypes about vegan lesbians or Lesbians Who Grill, more than I do [see] anything relating to cheese.”
Being out and proud is common in the women-led cheese industry, but intersectionality and balancing multiple identities is still a challenge. Kyra James started working part-time as a cheesemonger to help pay for grad school (where she was studying gastronomy and culture), but found a passion for mongering and teaching cheese classes.
“My passion is trying to make cheese approachable and relatable to people in America who may see it as unobtainable, to allow them to enjoy cheese on a more casual level,” she says. She identifies as queer, but rarely talks about her sexual orientation at work. “I’m a black female first,” she says, noting she’d love to be more involved in the LGBrieTQ community, but as a person of color in a white-dominated industry, feels that is more of where her identity politics play in—she only knows of two other “brown female cheesemongers” and hopes to change that via her cheese classes and by shifting the perception of cheese as an exclusive or luxury item for people with certain backgrounds into a more inclusive space.
“One of my many, many goals is doing more for young people of color and young queer people,” Kyra says. “It’s a very unique job: You don’t make a lot of money, you have to love what you’re doing.”
At the annual Cheesemonger Invitational, when cheesemongers from across America meetup to compete in their cheesy craft —and during which lesbian cheesemongers congregate—Kyra finds herself seeking out people of color more than other queer women. For others, CMI becomes a sporting-event-like spot to build camaraderie, bond over a love of cheese (and women), and, like so many cheese counters, it’s first and foremost “a place where you can be yourself,” Cara says.
The Queer Cheese Plate
I asked queer and lesbian cheesemongers what the queerest cheese was.
“Julianna and Schallenberg. No explanation—just eat them and you'll know.” –Dmitri Orion
“Mimolette. It looks like a cantaloupe or a cannonball, but it’s actually cheese. It’s a bright orange, fantastic, over-the-top thing with an odd rind. The shape is so weird. It’s a surprise, a flamingo of cheeses.” –Cara Warren
“The queerest cheese is definitely Feta Lesbos, from the island of Lesbos. The Lesbian sheep—yes, this is the real term for sheep from Lesbos—produce a rich four- to 18-month brined feta distributed in the US by Essex Cheese. Lesbos is the only Greek island to hold a PDO [Protected Designation of Origin] for feta, so feel free to eat copious amounts of this cheese with your queer friends knowing these Lesbian sheep are in good hands.” –Hannah Morrow
“Lesbians love stinky cheese.” –Abby Pfunder
"Roaring Forties, an Australian blue cheese that's similar to the French Roquefort but made with cow's milk and dipped in black wax. The flavor starts mild, then builds with fruity, nutty notes and finishes with a smooth spicy kick. This is how I would define most queer people I know. The cheese starts out as a different blue cheese, but before aging, they cut it into a thinner wheel and dip it in wax. The wax helps keep oxygen out and moisture in, which in the cheese world, means fruity sweetness. So to me, if this process doesn't remind you of a confused teen who reinvents themselves to let their truth self shine, then I don't know what is. Queer power!" –Kyra James