And She Smiled: A Family Connection Through Cheese

Before settling in Wisconsin, my father lived in California. He left Mexico at age 16 and moved to California where his older brothers and cousins worked. His first job was picking peaches, figs, tomatoes, almonds and other fruits on the farms. He became a US citizen in 1974. In 1978, my father, a young, single bachelor drove to Wisconsin with an older cousin because they had been told by other family members already living here that there were job opportunities in the tanneries and steel mills. He met my mother that same year and they got married in 1981. My father’s work ethic and love story allowed me and my siblings to call Wisconsin home – but our family history doesn’t stop there.

My 88-year-old grandmother has been the inspiration for most of my life and career projects. A good cheese can tell an entire story, from the cow that provided the milk to the flavor and aroma that comes from that first taste. You may be wondering what my grandmother has to do with cheese and me? Allow me to share my story:

On a calm Tuesday evening in March 2020, I was embraced by a tender memory. I walked over to my grandmother’s house and found her with her hands in the cheese. Her kitchen table was filled with baskets used to mold her cheese. This was not the first time I saw my grandmother making cheese, a tradition my grandparents passed on to their children and grandchildren.

Cheese is my weakness. I immediately looked at her and asked if one of the baskets was going to my home. She smiled — my grandmother knows me well. I watched as she continued to mold her cheese and panela. Panela is a fresh, softer cheese that is made from fresh cow’s milk.  The joy I saw in her while perfecting the art of making cheese was similar to the joy I feel every time I cook a special meal for my own family.

I decided to take this moment to interview my abuelita (Spanish for grandma):

How old were you when you learned to make cheese?

“It was 1941. I was 10 years old living in the state of Jalisco in Mexico. My mom and aunt taught me how to do it. My dad taught me how to milk my favorite cow and I would help him. One of my fondest memories is when my dad and I would milk the cows directly into a cup, add a little bit of sugar and chocomilk, and drink it. I loved it.”

Does the cheese you make in Milwaukee taste different from the cheese you made in Mexico?

“I don’t taste a difference. Plus, they are both made with my hands.”  

What made you a cheese maker?

“I love cheese and I love to make it. Your grandfather and I would make cheese to sell to people in our town. The earnings helped us purchase hay for our many cows and send our eleven children to school.”

After just one hour of making cheese with my grandmother, I love both her and her cheese even more. She is 88 years old and passing this beautiful tradition on to me, her 28-year-old grandson. It will remain with me forever.

I leave you with my grandmother’s wisdom: What is well learned is never forgotten.

You can find Jesus at Zocalo Food Park which is located at 636 S 6th St in Milwaukee.