No matter how deep the drama plunges in “The Telling Room,” Michael Paterniti never seems to lose sight of the fact he’s writing about cheese.
The book begins with his discovery of a cheese called Paramo de Guzman in an Ann Arbor, Mich., deli more than 20 years ago, and this cheese immediately fascinates Michael, taking on a mysticism that would never let go.
For two decades, Michael would think about this cheese excessively. He’d decide to go find the man and family behind the product. To do this, he’d spend years traveling to and from a remote part of Spain. He’d make excuses to visit.
When Michael’s infatuation with Paramo de Guzman peaked, he temporarily moved his family to the Spanish village where the creator of this cheese – the gargantuan, in spirit and physical being, Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras – lived and worked.
Repeated in the most simple, factual terms: Michael moved a wife and young children to a detached foreign community, far from the family’s network of support, because he was obsessed with a damn dairy product.
Yes, it IS as ridiculous as it sounds, and Michael makes sure to convey that message throughout his book, because he’s asking a lot of the reader. He’s asking you to stick with him on this wild fantastical tale about cheese, and to do that, I think, it’s important to know Michael also fully understands the absurdity of this premise.
So you, willingly, play along and entertain Michael’s tale about cheese. And in doing so, you quickly realize that, no, this is not about cheese at all.
At its center, “The Telling Room” is almost primal in nature. You connect with a man who has two primary purposes for living: 1) To please his father 2) To uphold the traditions and ways of an ancient ancestral life.
In the man’s pursuit of those purposes, there is also a deep and loving friendship, which one day turns to betrayal and anger and tortured plans of revenge and, ultimately, something worse than even the thought of a bloody endgame: the loss of everything.
That’s the story of Ambrosio, and because of the magnetism of his personality, we live it too. We connect intimately with him for the same reasons I suspect Michael did.
It’s almost healing to view life through Ambrosio’s prism, a worldview in which a day’s little details absorb an uncommon sense of gravity. In our world of overwhelming digital stimulation, there never seems to be enough time for anything, let alone the act of spending hours around a table drinking wine and conversing with family and friends, happily insulated from the pulsating bubbles of commerce that are all major American cities and most minor ones, too.
But in Ambrosio’s life, those hours around the table in the “telling room” – a cave that guards the remnants of hundreds of years of stories told – are not nothing. They are, you could argue, everything. Through Michael’s pages, Ambrosio has this way of making you equal parts pure and ridiculous, as if it’s obvious the majority of your daily, modern-world worries aren’t nearly as important as you make them.
Here, sit, drink, let me tell you a story about old Castilian life and the secret to happiness.
That’s Ambrosio speaking, and who could ever deny that man? How could you exit his telling room without a different perspective on the hierarchy of what’s really important? Put simply: It feels physically good to read the story of Ambrosio’s life. The narrative has as all the benefits of a self-help tale without the overbearing preaching.
It’s the drama of the story arc – the creation of something valuable, the shocking destruction of it, the misguided plan of fixing this sudden problem, the resolution (I’m being purposely vague – read the book) – that makes the book work in a practical and commercial sense, but I don’t believe that’s specifically makes it memorable.
What achieves that is our connection with Ambrosio’s life and how he forces us to connect with something even richer.
It took me nearly five years to figure this out, which crystallized while reading “The Telling Room.”
I spent 4.5 years living on the East Coast, away from family and friends in Southern California. I appreciated the experiences of those 4.5 years in the moments they unfolded and came to genuinely treasure them over time. I would never go back and change them.
Still, I always felt a pull home, beginning almost immediately after I moved away. It wasn’t homesickness in the way you might normally describe it. I never struggled with being away. I actually loved almost all of it.
But there was this empty pull, which I could never really locate.
Was it missing birthdays and holidays and those kinds of events? No. I was home for the major holidays and transmitted by birthday wishes from afar. Was it missing out on golf outings and going to games with my dad? A little bit – those are my favorite things to do – but not exactly. Was it the beach and sun and overall superb environment of living in Los Angeles? No. As much disdain as I held (and still hold) for an Eastern winter, that actually had nothing to do with it.
It was stupid spontaneous barbecues that we often have at home.
This was my “cheese” moment like Michael had while working on his book. Yes, I fully realize how silly it is that a normal barbecue – different from having a family gathering to celebrate a holiday, for instance — is what made me miss home the most. We’ve had hundreds of these and will have hundreds more as long as we’re all healthy and around.
But here’s the thing about those: They matter. I think the story of Ambrosio’s telling room and all the congregating that went on in there is personal because I relate to seemingly insignificant details.
These barbecues often include my grandfather (dad’s side), who was born and raised in Greece before coming to America. He brought with him a country’s and family’s worth of beliefs and traditions, which he passed down to his children, who have honored and upheld them in their own ways.
We – me, my dad, his dad and whomever else is around, which is often my sister, mother and others – will sit around a table outside by a smoldering grill. We’ll tear bread with out hands, maybe dip a corner in some olive oil, and wash it down with a drink poured into a short glass. Food is served family style – meaning, sliced up and put on a big platter in the center of the table, everyone welcome to dig in as they please. Salt is pinched between the fingers from a small stone jar and sprinkled over meat. There’s nowhere to go. It’s just a lazy weekend day.
It’s all very Mediterranean-influenced, which is apparent in “The Telling Room.” And this, I think, is the real power of the book Michael wrote.
You don’t need to have European roots to relate to Ambrosio. You just need to have a history, which everyone, whether they are in touch with it or not, can claim. Ambrosio forces us to reconnect with that history and reorganize the matters of our own lives.
I’ll end with this story, which I believe describes the ethos of “The Telling Room” better than I could:
When my dad was younger, he made a trip to Greece with his dad to visit family. It wasn’t their first trip there, and there have been a handful since.
Still, everything carried a magnitude that my dad didn’t fully understand at the time. Every gathering was loud and went long into the night. Every “meal” was more like four meals stuffed into one. Every place they went, day after day after day, was like this.
Eventually my dad, trying and failing to apply his American perspective to this European environment, asked his dad (I’ll paraphrase since I don’t recall the exact quotes or details):
Why is every time we get together with family here like this? Why does every meal go for hours and include more food than we could possibly eat? Why do we seemingly celebrate a normal barbecue?
“Because we’re healthy and we can,” my dad’s father said, relaying the message someone in his family had once told him.
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