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In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, an ancient door leads to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the ...
In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, an ancient door leads to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the telling room.” Containing nothing but a wooden table and two benches, this is where villagers have gathered for centuries to share their stories and secrets—usually accompanied by copious amounts of wine.
It was here, in the summer of 2000, that Michael Paterniti found himself listening to a larger-than-life Spanish cheesemaker named Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras as he spun an odd and compelling tale about a piece of cheese. An unusual piece of cheese. Made from an old family recipe, Ambrosio’s cheese was reputed to be among the finest in the world, and was said to hold mystical qualities. Eating it, some claimed, conjured long-lost memories. But then, Ambrosio said, things had gone horribly wrong. . . .
By the time the two men exited the telling room that evening, Paterniti was hooked. Soon he was fully embroiled in village life, relocating his young family to Guzmán in order to chase the truth about this cheese and explore the fairy tale–like place where the villagers conversed with farm animals, lived by an ancient Castilian code of honor, and made their wine and food by hand, from the grapes growing on a nearby hill and the flocks of sheep floating over the Meseta.
What Paterniti ultimately discovers there in the highlands of Castile is nothing like the idyllic slow-food fable he first imagined. Instead, he’s sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery, a blood feud that includes accusations of betrayal and theft, death threats, and a murder plot. As the village begins to spill its long-held secrets, Paterniti finds himself implicated in the very story he is writing.
Equal parts mystery and memoir, travelogue and history, The Telling Room is an astonishing work of literary nonfiction by one of our most accomplished storytellers. A moving exploration of happiness, friendship, and betrayal, The Telling Room introduces us to Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, an unforgettable real-life literary hero, while also holding a mirror up to the world, fully alive to the power of stories that define and sustain us.
Praise for The Telling Room
“Captivating . . . Paterniti’s writing sings, whether he’s talking about how food activates memory, or the joys of watching his children grow.”—NPR
“A gorgeous and impassioned monument to the art and mystery of storytelling, The Telling Room is rich, funny, humane, devastating, and beautiful. It made me want to applaud, it made me want to cry, it made me want to move to Spain. Michael Paterniti is a genius.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“Unforgettable . . . a must-read for all who think of Spain as magical, who consider cheese as the ultimate gift of love, who love stories of betrayal, despair, revenge and redemption.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The Telling Room embodies the spirit of slow food and life.”—Michael Pollan
“Elegant, strange, funny, and insightful, The Telling Room is a marvelous tale and a joyful read, a trip into a world peopled by some of the most remarkable characters—and, yes, cheese—in memory.”—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
“Elegant, strange, funny, and insightful, The Telling Room is a marvelous tale and a joyful read, a trip into a world peopled by some of the most remarkable characters—and, yes, cheese—in memory.”—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
“By the time you hit the tenth page of The Telling Room, you realize you’re in the hands of a storyteller so masterful, emotionally subtle, and smooth that you’re willing to follow him anywhere, even into a cave. And you will.”—The Daily Beast
“Rich and shaggy, full of Castilian-size detours . . . one hugely likable book.”—The Boston Globe
“Exquisite . . . [a] gripping tale. [Grade:] A”—Entertainment Weekly
“Breathtakingly cinematic . . . reads like Bill Buford’s Heat, conveying the passions of both author and subject, but with David Foster Wallace’s gift for digression.”—The Tampa Bay Times
“Paterniti dives deeply into Spain’s political history, the pleasures of craft, and the motives and methods of storytelling itself.”—Harper’s
“Few writers can write about the taste of food with Paterniti’s vibrancy and precision. . . . [He] is a master of finding and telling great stories (the finding, for most writers, often being as difficult as the telling) that appear to be about something small, such as cheese, but are actually about something far larger—in this case, the whole of human existence. . . . As much as The Telling Room is about a Spaniard’s quest to create a cheese that embodies all the love and pain and joy he’s ever known, it’s also the story of a writer’s quest to channel that obsession into the perfect story.”—Esquire
“For my money, Paterniti is one of the most expansive and joyful writers around—big-hearted and humane and funny. This book is a wild and amazing ride.”—George Saunders, author of Tenth of December
“The list of writers I would read even if they were to write about a piece of cheese has always been short, but it includes Michael Paterniti. He has proved here that if you love something enough and pay a passionate enough attention to it, the whole world can become present in it. That’s true of both the cheese and the book.”—John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
“An amazing achievement, The Telling Room is an inspired, masterly epic that expands and refigures the parameters of the storyteller’s art.”—Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
“Michael Paterniti is one of the best living practitioners of the art of literary journalism, able to fully elucidate and humanize the everyday and the epic. In his hands, every subject, every moment of personal or global upheaval, is treated with the same curiosity, respect, empathy, and clear-eyed wisdom.”—Dave Eggers, author of A Hologram for the King
One night a man — a salt-of-the-earth man, an Old (though young) Castilian, a dreamer, and an artisan — decides he is going to start making his family's cheese again, which they had forsaken in the 1950s, a time of urban migration in Spain, less land being worked, and fewer farmhand mouths to feed. His mother gives him the basics, but he tinkers and fusses, he experiments, he makes the perfection of the recipe into a quest; it will be an offering, to his father — who taught him all the rituals and codes that gave life meaning — to the world. He arrives at something angelic, a perfection of terroir, balancing bouquet, texture, and flavor: piquant, earthy, tangy, nutty, robust. He turns it into a cottage industry, involving the whole family. It becomes a force and storms the cheese world. His name, fittingly, is Ambrosio.
Meanwhile — this is some twenty years ago — in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Michael Paterniti has finished his fine arts graduate degree and is earning a few nickels proofreading the (still-terrific) newsletter published by Zingerman's, the renowned deli. In one issue is an article by Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman's globe-trotting food adventurer, about this cheese: Páramo de Guzmán. In Weinzweig's estimation, it is the world's best cheese, and wickedly expensive. At twenty-two bucks a pound, Paterniti can only gaze at it on Zingerman's cheese board.
Years later, now a globe-trotting journalist himself, Paterniti is going through his files and comes across the Guzmán piece. It kindles something in him, an urge to know more about the cheese, its maker, and the village. He places a call to the one telephone in Guzmán and learns the cheese maker no longer makes the cheese. Like Bjorn Borg, Marco Pierre White, and Jim Brown, a man at the peak of his prowess walks away; he makes a world-famous delicacy from an ancient family recipe, then just stops. Journalist Paterniti's hackles rise: Here must be a story. And, in life, so little is better than a good story.
The Telling Room is that story, and it is a good one, an odd, gratifying piece of work, naked in its emotions, powerfully focused one moment, then eccentrically digressive the next. He actually writes at one point (in a footnote) that he is "not a fan of annotations and footnotes," yet the book is flooded with them: entertaining, meaty asides; fancy improvisations; ornaments — very much like the storytelling in Castile. It will take him a long time, a very long time, to tell the story — long enough for his British publisher to ask him to return his advance — or anyway to get it right. But he does — bogging down only when in fits of navel-gazing — offering diamond-sharp portraits of Ambrosio, Guzmán, the cheese, and the crazily contradictory tale of how it all went south.
Ambrosio is larger than life, all garrulous conviviality, elemental, tuned to the music of the spheres. He's the kind of man who speaks to his sheep and his cheese, and the sheep and the cheese speak back. Though larger than life, his scale is still very human, as is his speed, which raises in Paterniti a yearning for "a life in which there seemed to be more time for family and conversation, for stories and food, a life I was desperate to lead now as an antidote to my own." He will find, at heart, that he is not a Castilian, but for the time being, he ecstatically falls for Ambrosio and what he represents.
There is, however, a snake in Ambrosio's garden. With no head for law or practical business matters, he tells Paterniti, he leaves those matters in the hands of his best friend, Julián, a lawyer, only to find that he has blithely signed contracts that give control of the company to a couple of connivers, with Julián in cahoots.
Debts mount, and it is Ambrosio who is responsible to pay them. He leaves, bankrupt, when he learns that the cheese will be made with inferior ingredients, and worst of all, without love. He considers revenge, of murdering Julián, torturing him to death. He winds up driving a truck to pay off his debts.
When Paterniti finally pulls himself out of Ambrosio's orbit, he gets a very different earful from Julián: that it wasn't only love and patrimony that drove Ambrosio but profit; that he dodged responsibility and was an expert at self-justification; that he cooked up Julián the bamboozler to save his dignity. Yet this humanity makes Ambrosio an even more commanding character, someone who has taken "the rocky path to the sublime": complex and guileless, visionary and fresh, ingenious and gullible.
And so generous, inviting Paterniti into his life and his village, where the land is a living, breathing creation, the wind howls, the earth groans, where if it's not drought, then it's hail, and if the hail fails, then the locusts will surely come. He welcomes him into the cave where he stored his divine cheese, and best of all into the anteroom to the cave, the contador, once a counting room for the foodstuffs stored in the cave. The contador — the term is derived from contar, which means "to count" but also means "to tell" — is now an intimate social gathering place, where meals are shared, the flagon of wine is handed back and forth, time passes, and stories are told: war stories, histories, secrets, revelations — the telling room, that wormhole into the Castilian time-space magic of El Cid and Goya and Páramo de Guzmán.
Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewed by Peter Lewis
This particular story begins in the dusky hollows of 1991, remembered as a rotten year through and through by almost everybody living, dead, or unborn. I’m sure there were a few who had it good, maybe even made millions off other people’s misfor- tune, but for the rest of us, there wasn’t a glimmer. January dawned with tracers over Baghdad, the Gulf War. It was a bad year for Saddam Hussein and the Israeli farmer (Scud missiles, weak harvest), the Polit- buro of the Soviet Union (dissolved), and the sawmills of British Co- lumbia (rising stumpage fees, etc.). An estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people died in a Bangladeshi cyclone. The IRA launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street, shattering the windows and scorching the wall of the room where Prime Minister John Major was meeting with his Cabinet (“I think we’d better start again, somewhere else,” said the prime minister). In the Philippines, Mount Pinatubo erupted, ejecting 30 billion metric tons of magma and aerosols, draping a thick layer of sulfuric acid over the earth, cooling temperatures while torching the ozone layer.
It was a brutal year for the ozone layer.
Here in America, it was no better: the rise of Jack Kevorkian, Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis, Donald Trump’s dwindling empire. Rape, mass murder, and masturbation.* The country slopped along in a recession, and meanwhile, I wasn’t feeling so good myself.
To kick things off, I got dumped in January. I was twenty-six years old, making about $5,000 a year, pretax. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with my roommate, Miles, both of us graduate students in the creative writing program for fiction, a.k.a. Storytelling School. We each had a futon and a stereo—and everything else (two couches, black-and-white TV, waffle iron) we’d foraged from piles in front of houses on Big Trash Day.
That year, I toted around a book entitled The Great Depression of 1990, one bought on remainder for a dollar, and that predicted abso- lute global meltdown . . . in 1990. But I, for one, wasn’t going to look like an idiot if it hit a year or two late. The advantage I had over most everyone else in the world was my lack of participation in the econ- omy, except to issue policy statements, from the couch, before our bliz- zardy TV screen of black-and-white pixels. The eleven o’clock news brought us Detroit anchorman Bill Bonds and all the bad acid and strange perversions of the year—the William Kennedy Smith trial, the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Rodney King beating—all deliv- ered from beneath his superb toupee, woven it seemed with fine Incan silver.
Nineteen-ninety-one was the year we were to graduate, and as the months progressed toward that spring rite of passage, a funny thing happened: We, the storytellers, could not get our stories published— anywhere. We typed in fits of Kerouacian ecstacy, swaddled our stories in manila envelopes, sent them out to small journals across the coun- try. The rejections came back in our own self-addressed envelopes, like homing pigeons.
So we stewed in our obscurity—and futility. We were Artists. We* worked as course assistants and teachers of Creative Writing 101, reading Wallace Stevens poems to the uvulas of the yawning under- grad horde, moving ourselves to inspiration while the class spoke among itself. We kept office hours in a holding pen with sixteen other teachers, and then went and drank cheap beer at Old Town Tavern, swapping lines from our rejection letters. As it began to dawn on us that the end of our cosseted academic ride was near, the tension ratch- eted so high that we started spending extra time with the only people who were consistently more miserable than we were: the poets.
• Mike Tyson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Pee-wee Herman.
In pictures from our graduation, we—my posse and I—look so innocent, like kids really, kids with full heads of hair and skinny bod- ies and a glint of fear in our eyes, gazing out at the savage world and our futures. You can almost see our brains at work in those photos, now just hours away from the cruelest epiphany: Those preciously imagined short story collections and novels, copied and bound lov- ingly at Kinko’s, called The Shape of Grief or What the Helix Said,* qualified us for, well, almost . . . exactly . . . nothing.
Which is what led me to a local deli, a place called Zingerman’s, to see if they needed an extra sandwich-maker on weekends. This was Zingerman’s before it did $44 million in annual sales and possessed a half million customers, but it was already an Ann Arbor legend, a fa- bled arcade of fantastic food, a classic, slightly cramped New York– style deli in the Midwest, with a tin ceiling, black-and-white tiled floor, and the yummiest delicacies from around the world. The shelves over- flowed with bottles of Italian lemonade, exotic marmalade spreads, and tapenades. The brothy smell of matzo ball soup permeated the place. On Saturday mornings, before Michigan football games, people thronged, forming a line down Kingsley Street. The sandwiches cost twice as much as anywhere else, and whenever we splurged as students, we’d go there and stand in the long line, the longer the better actually, just to prolong the experience. Then we’d order from colorful chalk- boards hung from the ceiling, detailing a cornucopia of sandwiches with names like “Gemini Rocks the House,” “Who’s Greenberg Any- way?,” and “The Ferber Experience,” each made on homemade farm bread or grilled challah or Jewish rye, stuffed with Amish chicken breast or peppered ham or homemade pastrami, with Wisconsin muen- ster or Switzerland Swiss or Manchester creamy cheddar, and topped with applewood-smoked bacon or organic sunflower sprouts or honey mustard.
* Mine was entitled Augie Twinkle’s Lament, and detailed—some might say excruciatingly—the progress of a minor league pitcher to his final game on the mound, where, after being shelled, he exits over the center-field fence, discarding his uniform, piece by piece, in grief-stricken striptease. From there, left only in his codpiece, he goes on a laundry-stealing binge . . . and the rest, you’ll have to trust me, is heartrending, humorous, and deeply compelling.
In the days before the rise of gourmand culture, before our obses- sion with purity and pesticides, before the most fetishistic of us could sit over plates of Humboldt Fog expounding on our favorite truffles or estate-bottled olive oil, Zingerman’s preached a new way of thinking about food: Eat the best, and eat homemade. Why choke down over- salted, processed chicken soup when you might slurp Zingerman’s rich stock, with its tender carrots and hint of rosemary? Why suffer any old chocolate when you might indulge in handcrafted, chocolate- covered clementines from some picturesque village in northern Italy, treats that exploded in your mouth, the citrus flooding in tingles across the tongue with the melted cocoa spreading beneath it, lifting and wrapping the clementine once again, but differently now, in the sweetest chocolate-orange cradle of sensory pleasure? Judging by the towering shelves of rare, five-star products from around the world— the quinces and capers, the salamis and spoonfruits, the sixteen-year- old balsamic vinegar and Finnish black licorice—the quest for higher and higher gustatory ecstasies never ceased.
If Zingerman’s preached a new way of thinking about food, it was by practicing the old ways, by trying to make latkes as they’d been made a hundred years ago, by returning to traditional recipes. The idea was to deepen the experience of eating by giving customers a sense of culinary history and geography, to ask questions like: Why are bagels round?
To my mind, such inquiry and excellence deserved me, and even if I was only going to build sandwiches, I would beam my own excel- lence in perfect slathers of mayo and mustard. After all, I needed a job, and the food and the karma were so good at Zingerman’s, it felt like a place I could make home for a while.
So one June day found me hiking up the steep stairs to the office above the deli and presenting myself as the answer to Zingerman’s problems, whatever its problems were. I came armed with my résumé bearing the proud monogram MFA, and within three minutes, two of them spent waiting, one of the deli mistresses set me straight.
“We don’t have anything right now,” she said, as seven phones rang at once, and turned back to business.
A few days later, the deli called. They wanted to see me regarding a special opportunity. I beelined back to the office and stood before the deli woman again. “I noticed you’ve done some proofreading,” she said casually, her eyes skimming my résumé to jog specifics. “Ari writes all the newsletters himself, and we could use someone to check it each month.” It wasn’t for sure, my new boss cautioned. And it might be four to six hours a month. We could try one first. To see how it went.
I thought I heard something like eight dollars an hour. “Done,” I said.
I left with a folder clutched tightly under my arm and a new sproing in my step. The newsletter, the monthly newsletter! It sat in stacks in the store. Everyone from the ebullient hard-core gourmands to the morose doctoral students read it while waiting in line, especially because it contained a menu and you couldn’t read the chalkboards from a mile away. But it was more than that: It was part foodie bible, part travelogue, in which Ari brought to stirring life his global search for goodies as he played out the thrilling Indiana Jones lead. From a business point of view, the newsletter had always been a bit of market- ing genius, and now it had become Ari’s trademark, one his followers craved reading as much as their latest New Yorker issues.
The Ari in question was Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of the Zingerman universe and a man of panache, chutzpah, and wide-roaming palate. Once he’d been a University of Michigan history major and collector of anarchist literature; now he was caught in a daily down- pour of money from the clouds of patrons at his doorstep. Ari was tall, handsome, with dark ringlets of hair, the overeducated man’s Jeff Goldblum. Everybody seemed to want a word. He was ARI, gourmet argonaut, the Sherlock Holmes of nosh and niblets.* I’d seen him once or twice in the deli, wearing spandex shorts, just in from a run. He was always trailed by a gaggle of pretty people. Long, lean, hypnotic, the magic man of food—AHHHH-REEE.
• In a New York Times article from the Business section on May 3, 2007, about the populist rise of Zingerman’s, Michael Ruhlman, a food industry expert and writer, summed up the deli’s success over the decades like this: “There’s not a lot the con- sumer can do, really, to get Iberian ham, but Ari can.”
And so, naturally, the newsletter was a revved-up reflection of Ari’s peregrinations, and as such was never meant to be literature. His was a breezy, conversational style, full of exclamations (This is the best!) and enthusiasms (You gotta try it!), a pleated high-school pep squad for his personal pantry. His greatest strength was a knack for making you hungry. Back at my apartment, even as I imagined Ari up in first class on a flight to St. Petersburg in search of the world’s best beluga caviar, I dug a couple of pencils from the drawer, then pulled the folder from my backpack, placed it on the desk, and began perusing the pages. On first read, it was good, if a bit rustic. There was the occasional clunker, but that was to be expected. I made some marks, deleted a few words, added a suggestion. I got up and fixed a grilled cheese. Sat back down. Made more notes. Were we being a little too effusive about the Jewish noodle kugel? Couldn’t we add a more savory detail re: the sour-cream coffee cake? What about ex- panding our adjective horizon beyond “tasty” and “delicious”?
By late afternoon, I’d completely rewritten the thing. Ari’s style was now more . . . Cheeveresque. I couldn’t wait for him to return from St. Petersburg, or wherever, so I could entirely rewrite his next news- letter about beluga caviar. I put the folder aside, revisited it once more late that night while eating cold noodles. Yes. Perfect. Bill Bonds came on: Boris Yeltsin was standing on top of a tank in front of the Krem- lin; the Soviet regime had been toppled.
Things were looking up.
Back at the deli a few days later, reaction to the revolution—my first edit—was surprisingly muted. “I think we’re trying to keep Ari’s voice intact,” said my boss, handing back my edit. Maybe we should let Ari be the judge of that, I wanted to say. But really, I needed the job. So I gathered the pages into the folder again and, home at my desk, armed with a plump red eraser, brought him back to life. I added more exclamations. In the margins, I wrote: “Wouldn’t this be a good place for a ‘delicious’?” I reminded myself that I was thrilled not only to get paid for reading but also to be reading anything besides lit-crit books that quoted heavily from Lukács’s theory of reification.
During a time when microwave popcorn passed for dinner, the subject of fine food also offered a vicarious thrill. While I couldn’t af- ford to eat well, I could certainly aspire to. So I read with an enthusi- asm that matched Ari’s on the page. I could taste the pickles and smoked fish. I could hear the cow moo and the butter churn. I was drawn deeper and deeper into his savory world, though I never forgot my place as foot servant. The truth is, Ari Weinzweig never would have recognized me if we’d smacked into each other before the loaves of rye.
That, however, didn’t dampen my enthusiasm about our next order of business together: the October newsletter, which was Zinger- man’s second annual celebration of Spanish food. The deli was work- ing in concert with the Spanish tourist board and artisanal food makers there, and sometime earlier that year, Ari had eaten his way across the country in search of delectables. Something about the evo- cation of warm sun, sangria, and gluttony just as the low ceiling of gray lake clouds closed over Michigan for the next half year struck a chord, and while my only visit to Spain had come on a chilly Euro- pean jaunt during my junior year abroad in London—there were Uzi’d policia in the streets of Madrid ten years after Franco’s death and an elaborate night trying to find Salvador Dalí on the Costa
Brava*—the country flashed back now through Ari’s prose.
That October newsletter was his aria, his masterpiece, his opus. The writing seemed to come from a different man. The passion was unbridled. ¡Vaya! He sang the praises of Spanish olives and Rías Baixas wine, Salamancan ham and a host of cheeses that included Manchegos, Cabrales, Majoreros. I tightened and added a few “delicious”es. I padded an entry about sherry, lightened another about olive oil. I turned the page—and suddenly, from nowhere, came an entry that needed no intervention whatsoever. It was about a special cheese Ari had hunted down, and it appeared under the heading “New and Amazing,” three paragraphs buried among six type-packed, oversized pages—crammed between a primer on Sephardic Jewish cooking and an ad for a paella-making clinic.
• We ended up at Dalí’s seaside villa in Cadaqués, where a friend and I crept to the door at midnight to hear the artist’s favorite music, Tristan and Isolde, at full vol- ume. When our knocking went unheeded, we retreated to Dalí’s high garden wall and drank two bottles of wine, which, along with high winds and a bevy of bats, fanned the flames of that haunted night until, terrified, we leaped at some sound and, entirely misjudging the drop, ended up sprained and bloody, limping miles before we found our backpacker hostel again.
“Though I’ve saved this one for last,” wrote Ari, “don’t let me mislead you. This is really an outstanding piece of cheese . . . so anon- ymous I discovered it by chance in London. It’s also the most expen- sive cheese we’ve ever sold. Makes me a little nervous just putting it on the counter.”
The item went on to describe how this piece of “sublime” cheese was made in Castile, in the north-central part of the country, and how, when Ari had visited the cheesemaker himself, the Spaniard had shared vivid memories of his grandmother making the very same cheese and imploring him to keep the tradition alive. When asked by Ari how he justified making such an expensive cheese, the man had said, “Because it’s made with love.”
But there was more: Each day this cheesemaker collected fresh milk from “his flock of one hundred Churra sheep.” The milk was poured into vats, stirred, and after it had coagulated, the curd was hand-cut into tiny pieces “in order to expel as much liquid as possi- ble.” Each wheel of the cheese was then pressed to rid it of any re- maining moisture and transported to a nearby cave. After the first aging, the cheese was submerged in extra-virgin olive oil and aged again, for at least a year. The stuff of his job—the minutiae, the care, the importance of time—happened to sound a lot like the job of a writer.
“It’s rich, dense, intense,” sang Ari, “a bit like Manchego, but with its own distinct set of flavors and character.”
There was something about all of it, not just the perfection of Ari’s prose, but the story he told—the village cheesemaker, the an- cient family recipe, the old-fashioned process by which the cheese was born, the idiosyncratic tin in which it was packaged—that I couldn’t stop thinking about, even as I went on to contend with misplaced modifiers in a passage about marzipan. It occurred to me that there we were, living through cursed 1991, in a crushing recession—when the national dialogue centered around whether Clarence Thomas had uttered the question “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”—and along came this outrageous, overpriced, presumptuous little cheese, almost angelic in its naïveté, fabulist in character, seemingly made by an incorruptible artiste who, with an apparent straight face, had stated that its high price tag came because it was “made with love.”
Was this for real?
I went to the deli. At $22* a pound for the cheese, I had no inten- tion of buying any. I’d come, however odd it sounds, to gaze upon it. Thus I timed my visit for in-between rushes. I picked up the finished newsletter at the door and stood for a while, reading as if the words were not only brand-new to me but the most fascinating thing I’d ever had occasion to trip over. I watched a few other nicely dressed people—quilted jackets, colorful scarves—reading it, taking pleasure in their pleasure. Then I dove in, jostling through holes in the line, moving across the black-and-white-checked floor until I found myself face-to-face with the cheeses behind the nursery glass: There were the Manchego and Cabrales, Mahón and Garrotxa . . . and there was my cheese. It seemed to hover there, apart in its own mystical world. It came in its white tin with black etching that read páramo de guzmán. The package, which was almost oval in shape, bore the emblem of a gold medal for supreme excellence above all other cheeses, an honor from some agricultural fair, it appeared. And perched there in the display, before a pyramid of the tins, was a piece cut into three wedges. Unlike its paler Manchego and Mahón brethren, it possessed an over- all caramel hue. It may sound strange to call a cheese soulful, but that’s what this cheese seemed to be, just by sight. It had traveled so far to be here, and from so long ago. I let myself fantasize about what it might taste like, as I could only fantasize about a gourmandizing, dandy’s life in which I might pen the words “. . . discovered it by chance in London.”
• Twenty-two dollars equaling eight chili dogs, or seven falafels, or five bibimbaps, i.e., a week’s worth of dinners.
And this is when an odd shift occurred inside: That little hand- made cheese in the tin, and its brash lack of cynicism in a rotten year, gave me a strange kind of hope. I sensed the presence of purity and transcendence. I felt I knew this cheese somehow, or would. It sat si- lently, hoarding its secrets. How long would it wait to speak?
A long time, as it turned out. But when it did, the cheese had a lot to say. Unlike that day in 1991, when I felt so pressed to leave the deli in order to put the finishing touches on another one of my overheated homing pigeons of prose, it became nearly impossible for me to walk away.
THE TELLING ROOM reading guide questions
1) When Paterniti first meets Ambrosio, Ambrosio expounds on the importance of taking time to cultivate food, to prepare it, to enjoy it, and -- finally -- to pass that food from our bodies as waste. How much do you agree with Ambrosio’s way of living? Do you believe that what we consume and the way we consume it has such a pronounced effect on our lives?
2) The back-to-the-earth style of living that Ambrosio describes proves seductive to the author, as it does to many Americans who subscribe to a more slow food, sustainable lifestyle. To what extent do you think it’s feasible to live life in this manner? Do you believe that a more agrarian, farm-to-table way of living is better than the more convenience-oriented lifestyle of the average American?
3) On page 71, Paterniti includes the following footnote: “I would soon find out that digression was a national pastime in Castile, that to get to the crux of any matter you had to listen for hours, weeks, months, years.” What do you think is his intention by including this note to the story? How did it affect the way that you read the footnotes that followed?
4) Ambrosio has a phrase, “the disability of memory,” which he defines by saying, “Everything is rushing forward, so I must go back.” In what ways is Ambrosio’s story emblematic of this idea? Why do you think this idea captured Paterniti’s imagination so completely?
5) When Paterniti first returns to Guzman, he writes that “[I didn’t] care to hold myself to the normal journalistic standard, for I wasn’t entirely playing a journalist here. I was playing myself for once.” Do you think that, by entering the story simply as himself, different opportunities were open to Paterniti than if he had investigated strictly as a journalist? What issues might have been avoided had he been more of an objective observer? How might a more objective book about Ambrosio feel different than the one Paterniti ultimately wrote?
6) In THE TELLING ROOM the idea of memory takes many forms, such as Luis’s keys, or the cheese itself. Why do you think memory becomes such an important theme as the book goes on?
7) When Ambrosio gives Paterniti a key to the telling room, he says that it’s where Paterniti will write “their” book. Who do you think the book ultimately belongs to? In what ways is the story more Ambrosio’s, and in what ways Paterniti’s? What does it mean to own a story?
8) At the outset, Ambrosio is portrayed as a mythic figure, and is later revealed to be, simply, a man. How does this shift occur? What parts of Ambrosio the man have to be cloaked so that we can believe in Ambrosio the myth?
9) The idea of fatherhood is another recurring theme, and particularly the ways that children carry on the traditions, ideas, and lives of their parents. On page 195, Paterniti writes, “This was one form of enlace, too, the attachment of the child to the father, and with the passing of time the father to the child, so that even in death one lived on, carrying the ghost of the other like a baby inside.” How are Ambrosio and Paterniti each defined by their roles as fathers? As sons?
10) The whole of Castile shares a fascination with the legend of El Cid, a story that likely glosses over some harsher truths. How does the story of El Cid relate to Paterniti’s relationship to Castile? How does it relate to his relationship with Ambrosio?
11) On page 204, Paterniti describes a scene in which the mistranslation of a word – barber for sheep shearer – leads him to “float away with the myth,” imagining a barbershop for animals. What are some other instances of “floating away with the myth” in this book?
12) Sara, Mike’s wife, describes the idea that some people see the world as being clearly delineated (1 + 1 = 2), while other see it as a web of possible connections. Do either of these outlooks match up with your own worldview?
13) Towards the end of the book, Paterniti describes the act of telling stories to his children as one that unites them as a family, and as “some way of saying, ‘History repeats.’ And: ‘You’re going to be alright.’” Do the stories you remember hearing as a child and the stories you tell now have a similar impact on you? What other ways do stories – and the act of storytelling itself – affect us?
14) Ultimately, what do you think of Ambrosio, the myth and the man?
This is a remarkable book that goes deep into the secrets of a small Spanish village. It swings from memoir to travelog to history. It details love, friendship, betrayal. It is a darn good book!
16 out of 17 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
This is a very interesting book about a small village and the truths, lies, and myths that unfold in the Telling Room.
10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I found this to be a very interesting book. The author brings to life far more than the story of a fine cheese. He goes in depth about a special "Telling Room" in a small village in Spain where villagers go to confess and share stories. From this Telling Room research the author manufactures a vivid look into the village.
4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 28, 2013
I love the premise of this story; it's got geat bones. But I am really struggling to read the whole thing because of the incessant superfluous footnotes. It's like the author had a bad break up with his editor and chose everything s/he edited out over their partnership and shoved it back in the story as footnotes. It's a rare four uninterrupted paragraphs you can get through before being directed to some tangent that pulls you out of the story at hand for, every time, no worthwhile reason. None of this "bonus" info is making me feel the story any more fulky, nor do they help build the characters. Which feel underdeveloped: the main character is a sanctimonious blowhard I'm having a hard time feeling sympathetic for and the narrator is about as interesting as untoasted wonderbread. Story feels like it could really go somewhere but the language is just not taking me there.
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 17, 2013
I thought that this book, this story was enthralling. I was just as caught up in the story telling of Ambosio and was a little disappointed (and intrigued) that there were other sides of the story.
The author painted a vivid picture of this little Spanish town and its environs, I felt like I was there - I could smell the sheep, see the surnsets, hear the wine being poured into the porron and yes! even taste the cheese.
The story didn't progress as I expected, but it was very much like life itself.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 13, 2014
Posted February 4, 2014
Posted January 10, 2014
Michael Paterniti leaves no detail uncovered. While at times his footnotes within footnotes can be a bit daunting, his story is heartwarming, amusing, interesting and brings the reader into the experience of rural Spanish life. I highly recommend it for readers who enjoy traveling outside the big cities and getting to know the region and its people.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 24, 2014
Posted February 25, 2014
Posted October 29, 2013
The story of Ambrosio, Guzman and the cheese is quite fun. But the author throws in so much other seemingly irrelevant information not to mention the footnotes (which i can understand a bit since it is meant to be a true story, plus you can totally skip them if you want) that it is hard to read and stay engaged in the story. This would have gotten 4.5 stars had it been about 150+ pages shorter.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 16, 2013
This book is wonderful. It does read like a novel, yet it's a memoir or a non-fiction history/story. I love Spain, and the history and peoples of Spain as it evolved and the places and foods and wines, etc., are wonderful. The story of the cheese, the wonderful/best in the world cheese, from a small town in Castile, is a great story. The writer becomes a character in the story as he meets the cheese maker and his family and townsmen and builds the narrative. I loved learning so much about Spain, cheese, and this wonderful group of miscreants who made it. The writer and his family are just great as they bring us this story by living it. There are many footnotes in the book and they are valuable. Be sure to read the footnotes as you go and you will learn much about the history of this great country and this special region and this town and the making of cheese. The footnotes are as much "literature" as the rest of this fascinating book. You may need to be a bit intellectual to love this book. So be it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 6, 2013
The Telling Room is a very good read. I would recommend it for book clubs. It combines history, mystery, and food with great precision and gusto. The Telling Room is a non fiction book that reads like a novel. There are a bit too many footnotes; otherwise, this is a fanstatic find and a book that I will be telling people about for a long time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 30, 2013
I did not care for this book at all. Archaic word choice as well as writing style lead me to believe Paternini wrote this for an elite academic audience in mind with the sole purpose of showing off. It didn't engage me enough to finish it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 20, 2013
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Posted October 3, 2013
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Posted November 24, 2013
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Posted September 6, 2013
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Posted August 7, 2013
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