Frequent Cheese Department shoppers are familiar with Justin Hardecker’s gleeful delivery of his generous knowledge regarding all things cheese. His passion for the product is clear. Many Co-op shoppers have come to depend on it. Upon reflection, it seems like Justin has always been there; there is a timelessness about his presence. Surprisingly, Justin’s path to the Co-op Cheese Department started less than 10 years ago.
At that time the Cheese Department was cloaked in mystique, and member-owners’ names were added to a waiting list with the hope that, at a future time, they would be able to claim they worked in the most prestigious department in the store, presided over by then-Manager and “Cheese Guru,” Gustav Ericson. Samples of cheeses with exotic-sounding names were distributed to customers who would “ooh” and “ahh” in delight, and buy skillfully wrapped wedges to take home and offer to guests along with the information that “It came from the Cheeeeese department.”
Justin didn’t eat cheese at all at that time. He didn’t even know what real cheese was. Having been offered food-like cheese products as a child in suburbia, he had long ago decided that what he thought of as cheese was not for him. “Cheese to me had been something gummy and chewy that came pre-shredded in bags or in greasy blocks that always smelled and tasted uniformly terrible (kind of like foot, but not in the way some washed-rind cheeses smell, with their diversity of floral and strange, bodily aromas; the cheese I knew smelled like a foot wrapped in plastic),” he reflected. Justin describes his former college student self as a “misguided vegetarian.” He was interested in discovering and learning more about healthy food and farming practices.
When he returned home to the Albany area after college in Massachusetts, he and his friends began shopping at Honest Weight on Central Avenue, and that is where he rediscovered cheese. More accurately, that is where Justin discovered real cheese for the first time. He still retains a vivid memory of that experience. Gustav had spotted Justin as he was about to pass by the cheese counter and offered him samples of Bucherondin, a French goat milk cheese; Brillat-Savarin, a French cow milk Brie; and Gruyère, a traditional Swiss cheese. Justin had a cheese epiphany! He bought the triple cream Brie and the Gruyère.
At some point, Justin bought a share in the Co-op. When the Co-op moved to its current location, he began in the Produce Department as a member-owner. When he returned to school and his academic schedule became more demanding and rigid, he had to look for a different department where he could participate. It was at that time that Justin stepped into the Cheese Department as a member-owner. There was a steep learning curve and the stakes were high. Cheese is delicate and expensive. It needs to be wrapped correctly and merchandised appropriately. There is a lot to know about each cheese: name, kind of milk (cow, goat, sheep, etc.), place of origin (land and climate), age, fragrance, texture, melt-ability, and methods of production. Like any food, cheese can be salty, sour, sweet, and/or bitter. Then there is gaminess, which refers to how much you can “taste the animal.” Ask Justin about a particular cheese and you will hear about such specific traits as a texture that may be described as fluffy or creamy, or an aroma with notes of mushroom or even dubbed “funky,” It didn’t take long for Justin to recognize that he was good at learning all about cheese and informing and educating customers. Soon there was a part-time job opening in the department, so Justin applied and was hired. His hours increased and, as of this writing, he is a full-time employee.
Justin’s personal views on food production fit right in with the mission of the Co-op. He believes passionately in responsible food production and believes that voting with our dollars is the way to achieve it. In his own words, “The Co-op is essential because it provides customers with a place to go for products that meet their standards, and it provides producers a point of contact with the market most likely to be receptive to their values and efforts. This makes ethical food production more profitable, thereby making it more viable. Our power as consumers in voting with our dollars is enhanced, and the companies we support are better able to survive.”
If you think that quote sounds like something an English professor would say, you are right! Justin currently teaches Introduction to Creative Writing as part of the Assistantship program in the English Department at The University at Albany-SUNY. He has been there since 2013, working towards a Ph.D. for personal fulfillment, strengthening his own writing and concentrating on deeper reading of important literature. When he isn’t at the Co-op or at school, Justin is at home with his husband in Mechanicville, living in the family home they bought from his grandmother, baking for their own needs and dreaming of a future bakery business. Justin is a poet, too, and he is currently working on a set of poems to submit to Ploughshares, an American literary magazine.