Friday, September 2, 2011

Grandpa "Cheese"

I've been thinking a lot about my grandpa lately...which is a little odd since we really never met.

Maybe it's that we were just in Tahoe and I think of him every time we drive by the old King's Beach bar he built with his own hands in the 30's. That's him chopping down the trees...

And here is the finished product! Over the last 80 years it's lived through many incarnations and today, us young folk know the spot as Caliente.

Maybe it's that my Mom just had a birthday and each year I am reminded that, that day many years ago, he welcomed his third baby girl into this world while, sadly, he watched his wife leave it forever.

Here is my beautiful Grandma Alice with her first two girls, my aunts. When Grandma Alice passed in childbirth, her sister Josephine (we called her Grandma Finy) would leave all she knew back home, come to America and raise Mom as her own (and that, my friends, is another story)...

Maybe it's that I heard on the news that the old building in Alameda that housed their dairy and soda fountain in the 20's and 30's is being restored and, under layers of siding and stucco, they found a faded sign touting their State Fair-award-winning cream.

Maybe it's that everyone in the family called the old Swiss dairyman "Grandpa Cheese" and sometimes the thought of that just makes me smile.

Growing up in my family, you probably wouldn’t have found it odd to have a Grandpa named “Cheese.”

Every morning, his daughter (we called her Mom) served our toast with a slab of butter as thick as a deck of cards. "Special" occasions, from Arbor Day to Hanukkah, were frequent, and always warranted a free pass to top anything with a Matterhorn of whipped cream.

The freezer was always jammed with at least four flavors of ice cream and when we’d unwrap the mystery square of waxed paper in our lunchboxes, we’d often find a hunk of Swiss cheese partially covered by an afterthought of two thin slices of Roman Meal wheat bread posing as a sandwich.

French Brie, Danish Blue, Irish Cheddar, Greek Feta…Mom did not discriminate. A United Nations of cheese products always filled our fridge, hurriedly wrapped in a waif-like sheet of Saran and crammed into one of three dedicated drawers like dairy delegates waiting their turn to represent the motherland.

Why would we not have a Grandpa named “Cheese?” He was a huge part of our lives.  He had everything to do with who we are today. But, the funny thing is, us kids never really knew him. We were just babies when he died...

Grandpa Cheese was born in 1889 in the Kanton of Uri Switzerland. His given name was Ambros Furrer and he thrived as a young man along with his brothers and sisters in his mountain home along with the other real-life mountain-dwelling, cow-herding, lederhosen wearing dairymen. Here is the mountaintop village where he was raised, complete with cow.

Here's the way up...

And here are my cousins who operate the this day...yikes! That's Mom in the black jacket visiting them a few years back.

This is where they live. Come on...does it get more Swiss?

There he met the beautiful and adventuresome Elisabetha (she came to be known as Alice in the new country). They married in 1922, set out to America on their honeymoon...and never looked back.

Doesn't this photo taken on the deck of their honeymoon cruise ship remind you of a scene from The Titanic? A little spooky, I think, until you peer through the mist and notice the sweet smile on my grandmother's face and the proud posture of her loving groom. 

Two little girls soon made a family of four.Together, they settled in Alameda and opened a creamery on Webster Street. Along with making and delivering milk, cream and cheese, word has it that their soda fountain was the place to meet! Grandma ran the business, Grandpa worked the dairy and my aunts were the coolest cats in town.

Even though my mom was never a part of their lives together, I like to think about those days and imagine that somehow they are a part of ours.

So, by now, you've probably figured out that my thoughts and feelings usually manifest themselves eventually into something edible. I've been wanting to experiment with making cheese for a long time, and given my recent need to get in touch with my milkmaid roots, I thought it would be fun to finally make it happen. I got my hands on the ingredients, dug up a recipe on the Internet, and dove in without a whole lot of forethought. Mom stopped by so I handed her the Flip camera and we documented our journey through curds and whey.

I'm pretty sure that the laughs we had along the way were more delicious than the actual end result but, for our first try, I'd have to say that the cheese wasn't half bad. We're looking forward to our next go at it, with modifications, but know that "Grandpa Cheese" would have been proud to see two generations up to their elbows in the family business.

So, here's my thought for the day...take a minute to think lovingly about the ones who came before us...the ones who came from so far away, some by choice, and some by need, to make a better life for themselves and their families. Dig out Auntie Nora's old Irish soda bread recipe or the closely guarded formula for Uncle Guido's famous Bolognese and fill your home with the tastes and smells that bind families across generations.

Bon Appetit, Buon Appetito and Guten Appetit!

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