Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hand-on Cheddar

According to the ground-breaking work of Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, there are seven types of intelligence, not just one: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. His theory, put forth in the early 1980s, challenged traditional notions of human intelligence as a single entity, given to us at birth, and recognized that each person has a unique blend of intelligences. This paradigm shift (though not accepted in all academic circles) encourages a more complete picture of a person's cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

I wonder what Gardner would make of me. I have a unique blend of deficiencies.

This personal mix of shortcomings complicates my work at the cheese shop, especially when I have to do a task with my hands, which is pretty much all day long. Cutting a wedge of cheese from its pointy nose with a wire, wrapping it neatly in butcher paper with a crisp French pleat, and covering the exposed sides of working pieces of Cheddar are no-brainer jobs which should be easy, but are tremendously difficult for me. My hands refuse to cooperate even though the mind is willing. This shouldn't be. According to Loe, a fellow American in the shop who trained as a bio-engineer, electronics companies intentionally select women for small, detailed work. They have better fine motor skills than men. My clumsy work puts a wrinkle in this stereotype. Those companies surely wouldn't want me and my dopey hands. I feel thankful that Neal's Yard Dairy does.

My chief goal for the past two months at Neal's Yard Dairy was to get to know Cheddar better. What better way to familiarize yourself with an object than to put your hands directing on it. I find myself, however, avoiding the tasks of wrapping quarter-wheels and hefty working pieces of Cheddar in cling film because of the certain frustration--on my part and my fellow mongers'-- and the imperfect job that would ensue. There can be no flaws; the cling film should look like glass when finished and be hard to detect. That's not the case when I try. I spend far too long trying to get the cling film and tape to cooperate, and the end result looks like crap. For the sake of the shop, I concede the Cheddars to someone else.

My daft hands make me a weak link in the shop. When a socially awkward guy, but surprisingly big spender, came in on the first morning that we were open on a Sunday for the Christmas season, before my coffee had kicked in, and ordered 12 gift boxes of six different cheeses, I had to rope in the support of my fellow mongers because I knew that I wouldn't wrap the cheeses well enough to merit his paying 908 pounds sterling in one shot. I won't go far in the cheese world with this lack of manual dexterity and high level of caffeine dependency.

I don't mind grunt work with my hands, like cleaning cheese crates and knives. The severely chapped condition of the skin on my wrists and fingers prove that I am doing my job, or at least part of it. (I'd take a picture of my hands to show the hard work they've been subjected to, but my computer is so old that I can't upload photos to flickr and now my camera has now been stolen, so I don't even have the pictures any more. I should have kept my hands on my camera!) The satisfyingly tactile nature of the job--patting and rubbing and squishing rounds, wheels, and slices of cheese--has kept me from wearing protective blue plastic gloves. I'd lose the hands-on pleasure of my job if I did.

Taking a cue from the educators who have embraced Gardner's work, I shouldn't give up hope just yet. Since we aren't necessarily born intelligent, we do have the chance to hone the areas in which we shine and develop those which cast a dull light. With practice, I should be able to wrap cheese expertly, either in butcher paper or cling film. In the words of the U.S.'s new leader and my upbeat manager who admirably focuses on the positive, Yes, we can!

Progress has already been made. Yesterday I had a full-on hands-on training in wrapping cheeses. Instead of working at the retail shop near Borough Market as I was scheduled to do, I was sent--or perhaps banished--to "packing," the wholesale and mail order division of Neal's Yard Dairy at its Arches location in Bermondsey. The ostensible reason for shifting me there there was that the shop was overstaffed due to a slow Christmas thus far. I fear, of course, that I was sent there because I've been deemed the weak link on the Borough team, as I surely was this past Saturday when there were, at times, more mongers in the shop than customers. For hours on end yesterday I wrapped cheeses.

Despite being stressed with the number of orders he and his team had to complete that day, the packing manager Flynn patiently gave me some tips on how to wrap cheeses in wax paper. I really appreciated him. He was personable and sweet in a time of high stress, and put his hand on my shoulder whenever he wanted me to do something or to express appreciation for something that I had already done. But I spent the last two hours of my shift washing cheese crates. Was I banished again from wrapping cheese? I'd like to think I wasn't. After all, my coworkers that day were temporary employees, two quiet and young ginger-haired North Americans, a seventeen-year-old drop-out musician from Lewisham, and a privileged twentysomething with a terribly posh accent who had played golf at a small college in the North Carolina and dropped out. I could fold wax paper just as well as they could!

I've been highlighting my deficiencies, but in an attempt to be positive, like my mangers, I will say that I have gotten much better at visual recognition of cheeses. Eight years ago I would have been hard-pressed to pick out a slab of one type of Cheddar (e.g., Montgomery's) that had been misplaced on a tower of another Cheddar (e.g., Keen's). Now I can. I can even distinguish them in blind tastings. And I've finally learned which cheeses go where at the end of the day when we clean the cheese slate. When I last worked at the dairy, I had to ask my manager every night which cheeses went into the cold room and which stayed out on the shop floor or went into the "cellar." Now that I know more about the different classes of cheese I can figure out what goes where, unless Martin, my manger, throws me a whammy and sends, for example, the Gorwydd Caerphilly to the cold room instead of the cellar to control its quick break down.

My time at Neal's Yard Diary is quickly come to an end. Eight more days in a row there and then it's all over. But the other manager Michael thinks I'll be back, and Martin has already invited me back for next Christmas. With a bit more time (and a few days off first), I am sure my hands, which are kinesthetic learners, would gain the intelligence they need to become expert mongers. Until then, I'll try to get my hands--and mouth--onto as many bits of Cheddar that I can.

No comments: