Contest #215 shortlist ⭐️

44 comments

Fiction American Drama

Robert dipped his finger into the milk and felt its warmth. The digital thermometer displayed a temperature of 103 F. He added a cup of dry starter culture, spreading it evenly over the milk, and a spoonful of yeast, and gave the vat a stir. The air was heavy with the smell of aging cheese.

He set a timer for 30 minutes and busied himself flipping over yesterday’s molds. The cheese needed to be rotated daily to drain the whey, the process that has been followed for thousands of years in the Rhone-Alpes. Saint Felicien is one of the softest types of cheese, so he needed to be careful not to break the delicate rind that had formed. The rind of soft cheese is not a type of paper as many customers guess, but an amalgate of dried milk and mold. He lamented not being able to label the cheese with its real name. Despite being the only cheesemaker to put in the effort to produce Saint Felicien in America, the name could only refer to those produced in a designated region of France.

Most Wisconsinites still opt for the artificially colored, mass-produced product sold in the supermarket, the stuff that should hardly be called cheese at all. 

While he turned over the delicate pouches of fermenting cream, he tried to keep his mind away from the latest loan statement from Dad. Each month, Robert’s father meticulously calculated the interest on the $120,000 loan to found the creamery. The interest was steadily accumulating. The business made a small profit, but one thing or another broke constantly and needed to be fixed, and the repair bills had soaked up all the money they earned, and more.

Robert needed to do something big to break out of this endless loop. Get more attention, bring in national sales. Whole foods. Trader Joes. He wrote a book on the history of craft cheese in America. The first draft was done. Even though people said it was impossible to find a publisher as a new author, unless one was a celebrity, he didn’t give up hope. The American cheese festival would take place in San Francisco next month. He would max out his credit cards, if needed to, to make it there.

Gwen interrupted his reverie. 

“Should I start wrapping tomorrow’s batch for the farmer’s market?” She stood facing him with her work overalls on. Robert felt lucky to have someone willing to share his lifestyle.

“Thanks. Rack 37 and 38,” he said. “And, be careful.”

“Always am.”

Those racks had aged for 60 days. Sad because Saint Felicien reached its peak of flavor at 40 days. But each batch was labelled and records needed to be shown to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture which required all cheese to be aged for a 60 day minimum period. At least he and Gwen could eat the cheese at its peak, like they do in France, where he had spent 6 months on an apprenticeship.

The next day, at the Market on the Square in Madison, Robert handled a new prospective customer. Robert enjoyed talking to people, and was happy to introduce natural cheese to the people of Wisconsin, one at a time, if that’s what was needed.

“This cheese is handcrafted at our creamery located a half an hour outside of Madison. We buy milk from local producers, and make cheese the old-fashioned way, like they do in Europe. I won’t get into the details, but it's scandalous the artificial methods food companies use to make cheese.” He paused for a second before his deal closer. “Chemicals,” he said with a conspiratorial look that signaled it was best not to ask more.

A paper plate with a small piece of cheese was already in her hands. In the heat of the afternoon, it had become as runny as molten butter.

“This looks…interesting,” she said, holding it up with a tiny plastic fork.

“Nibble on the rind. Then slowly savor the headline act in the middle,” Robert enticed.

Gwen tapped his shoulder. They were setting up down the aisle. Those monsters ruined everything every Saturday.

**

Aaron worked as a substitute teacher, and as a freelance editor for several online nutritional websites. Someday you’re going to make it big, Aaron’s mother kept telling him. Too bad the medical treatments for lupus consumed so much of his time and energy. And he had tired of explaining to employers, and to everyone else, that men also suffer from the disease, so mostly he didn’t talk about it except with people in the community.

“Don’t eat that!” Aaron shouted across the aisle at a young woman who was holding up a piece of unhygienic cheese with a plastic fork. “It’s not safe!!”

After taking a quick glance, she put the fork down and looked at the cheese merchant. “Is this safe?”

“Unpasteurized cheese is perfectly safe as long as it’s made with high-quality milk and handled properly. We do our best to keep bacteria counts down–”

She put the paper plate back down on their table. “Maybe next time.”

“We follow FDA regulations…”

She flashed an uncomfortable smile at the cheese merchant, turned around, and walked away into the crowd of farmer's market attendees.

Victory! Aaron thought. He looked at Melissa, the final remaining member of his 2021 anti-raw milk activism campaign. “Fucking monsters,” he grumbled. 

“Monsters,” she agreed, her voice filled with bitterness.

The cheese merchant, who usually avoided engaging, shouted back. “I can hear you. I am not a monster!”  

“Raw cheese is a ticking time bomb,” Aaron argued. “It’s a breeding ground for E. coli and listeria and is a health risk.”

“Here’s the thing, bro. People have been eating cheese in Europe for hundreds of years and lived to tell about it.”

“Just because it doesn’t happen to everyone, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

“As if you know.”

“I do know!”

“I eat my own cheese every day. Look at my physique. Now look at yours. Who’s healthier?”

“That is the last straw.” Aaron felt his face grow warm. Just when he might have taken a swing at the cheese guy, Melissa stepped in front of him.

Melissa took over shouting at the cheese merchant, “What if that woman was pregnant? Your cheese was going to kill her unborn baby. How do you explain that?”

He appeared to not want to make a scene with a woman and backed off, and just pretended like they didn't exist for the rest of the morning.

Around noon, when the farmer’s market was reaching its peak, full of families coming into the city for a day out, Aaron and Melissa began chanting. “Beth Johnson! Beth Johnson!” 

Someone asked, “Who’s Beth Johnson?” 

Aaron pointed at his sign. Beth Johnson had died of listeria contracted from drinking unpasteurized milk in Oregon in 2018.

“Beth Johnson?” the cheese merchant said. “That hasn’t been proved. Stop being ridiculous with your accusations.”

“Let’s take a public opinion poll!” Aaron shouted back.

“Let’s do that.”

“Who thinks raw cheese is dangerous?”

“Who doesn’t?”

Shouting to get the attention of the attendees of the farmer's market, they both tried to convince people to take their side. But the crowd skittered away. Soon aisle 5 was deserted except for a few people who watched them warily from a distance. And unhappy fruit preserves and honey sellers. Unless there was physical violence, no one had any real interest in their disagreement.

**

After flipping out on the protester as a result of losing his customer, Robert looked at Gwen for reassurance.

“Can’t win them all.” She gave him a smile that showed she was 100% on his side.

“But this is so frustrating.”

“If you look back, we sold more cheese last year after that monster got us into the Madison Herald.”

“That’s true,” Robert said. “The gourmet media's attention goes to the producers in Oregon and California, and we are stuck with this guy.”

At 3pm the crowd began to thin. The anti-raw milk protesters started packing up their signs, the ones with slogans like ‘Listeria Monocytogenes Kills!’ and ‘Raw Milk is Curdled Conspiracy Theory!’

Robert began disassembling his own ‘Raw Cheese is our Heritage’ display with its map of France and the historical timeline of cheese production in Wisconsin.

As they both packed away their displays to take home–signalling the end of today's battle–they gave each other a tiny nod. They had been doing this every Saturday morning for at least a year. 

Robert took a deep breath, and then went over and explained the proposal. 

A few weeks later, Robert and Aaron found themselves in Robert’s truck on the long drive to San Francisco to attend The American Cheese Festival. In the back of the truck, Robert had 300 units of Saint Felicien cheese. Aaron had his ‘Raw Milk Kills!’ displays and brochures. They had agreed to split the cost of gas.

“Pasteurization was the most successful public health program of all time,” Aaron was telling Robert again.

“Don’t you think I know that?” Robert said. “I’m not Satan. I’m just carrying on tradition. Everything in life has risk. And raw cheese is thousands of times safer than raw milk.”

“And you cheese makers are making the fat profits.”

Dumbfounded, Robert took his eyes off the road to look at Aaron. “I’m losing money. Every month.”

Either from what he said, or from the realization that his driver wasn’t looking at the road, something broke through.

“Sorry to hear that,” Aaron said.

“Thanks.” Robert looked back at the road, an endless straight line through the cornfields of Iowa. “Why are you so opposed to raw cheese?”

“A person I know died of a bacterial infection. She had lupus. The doctor thought she might have drank raw milk or ate unpasteurized cheese.”

“Did they do an autopsy?”

“When someone with lupus dies, there’s no autopsy.”

“That’s rough,” Robert said. ”I do follow FDA regulations–”

“I don’t want to hear about it.”

“I hear you." They had a two day drive ahead and neither of them was going to change the other's mind. "Let’s talk about something else.”

“Deal.”

“And remember the plan. After you start shouting at the top of your lungs on the first day of the festival, when a few people have begun recording with their mobiles, take one of my Saint Felicien cheeses and smash it into my face.”

“A win-win like you said. But isn’t that dangerous?”

“The cheese is safe.”

“If you say so.”


September 15, 2023 09:24

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44 comments

Michał Przywara
21:40 Sep 19, 2023

Ha! Excellent! A very creative take on the prompt, with each man striking a deal with his own devil, but it also expertly portrays each side as stubborn and insane on the one hand, and completely reasonable and relatable on the other. A great study in how our perspective colours real life. What I really like about this conflict is, both men are fundamentally "the good guys". Whether that's producing a quality product and providing for his family, or raising awareness and trying to protect the public at large from untimely death, neither is...

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02:45 Sep 21, 2023

Thanks for commenting Michal. happy the theme that they are both the good guys, and feel completely justified in their opposing beliefs, came through.

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Michał Przywara
21:02 Sep 22, 2023

Woo, congrats on the shortlist! I'm telling you, people love cheese :)

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Audrey Knox
23:51 Sep 22, 2023

It's so funny how two people can both be in the right and also in the wrong!

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Amanda Lieser
00:58 Oct 13, 2023

Hey Scott! How wonderful to see your familiar face on the shortlist! I absolutely adore the story because I thought it was an incredibly clever take on the prompt. I admit, I am someone who is not very well-versed in the raw milk debate, but I certainly learned plenty in the story. As always your dialogue packs a punch, and you manage to incorporate characters who are not only passionate about their viewpoints, but eloquent as well. I could absolutely imagine being one of the innocent sharpers, who can’t look away from this debate. Nice work!!

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01:54 Oct 13, 2023

Thanks so much for reading! I really wanted to show two people who have different views, but are both very well intentioned in their own ways, learning how to get along with each other. Happy you enjoyed it.

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Judith Jerdé
14:32 Sep 28, 2023

Scott, such a timely story of our collective concerns about how the food we eat. How it’s processed and and distributed to the masses with out proper oversight. Very well done!

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Tommy Goround
06:28 Sep 28, 2023

Psst....goodjob

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07:38 Sep 28, 2023

Thx for reading Mr Goround! Finally landed a wisconsin story.

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Story Time
17:24 Sep 27, 2023

I love the structure of the story. I think it was smart to work in more dialogue towards the end, and it helped create the more irreverent tone that I think works so well. Great job, Scott!

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04:34 Sep 28, 2023

Thanks Kevin. It was a bit tricky to have two POV characters, needed some telling to setup their differences, so happy to hear the overall structure worked.

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Audrey Knox
23:50 Sep 22, 2023

This was a really fun read! Switch one of their genders and I could see a romantic comedy feature film here. I was bummed when it ended. I felt like the road trip was when it was just getting started. I also love all the attention you paid to the detail of Robert's efforts with the cheese. I must admit, the POV switch actually confused me. I realize this is my fault for not registered it with the paragraph break, but I didn't and had to go back and re-read from the beginning of the story when Robert proposed they get together for a road tri...

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04:16 Sep 23, 2023

Thanks so much for all your insightful comments. Happy to hear the idea that they both have strong beliefs we can have empathy for came through. I had read that the famous Zadie Smith book White Teeth had four different groups of people with contrasting beliefs, and wanted to explore that point of view challenge. You make a great point, one that I often tell people myself, to very clearly set the scene in the first sentence of a story, or a new scene or POV change, and save the cool prose fireworks for the next sentence once we know where...

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05:09 Sep 23, 2023

I just noticed you are in the screenwriting biz... Just for fun, brainstorming a full feature plot: when the two MCs get into the car for the road trip, they say "remember the plan" without revealing what the plan is. Then we have an hour of mini-adventures on the road trip to California. A hitchhiker who only drinks oat and soymilk who they both kick out. Ongoing gags about how bad the cheese in the back smells. Phone calls from home, problems at the cheese plant and silly cow-related events. They arrive at the cheese festival. The pl...

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Audrey Knox
13:57 Sep 23, 2023

haha I love this! I would also suggest flipping it so that they are road-tripping TO Wisconsin because it makes sense for the cheese festival to take place in the cheese capital of the world. Also, if you're going true rom-com structure, it would be better to reveal what the plan is at the very beginning so your audience understands the stakes. Then you can give each character their OWN hidden plan to try and sabotage the other, but of course along the way they fall in love and start to realize that maybe they don't want to sabotage the othe...

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05:07 Sep 24, 2023

I see all of that working so well. You're a natural;) I'll put this on the backburner for a full longer rewrite at some point. Love the idea of the road trip TO cheese nirvana wisconsin, and the secret plans to sabotage each other which could lead to some great comedy.

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Audrey Knox
18:20 Sep 25, 2023

I can't wait to read it when the time comes.

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Robert Egan
19:13 Sep 22, 2023

Congrats Scott! I really liked your unique interpretation of this prompt, and I can see you did your cheese research. Also, great name choice for the main character 🤓

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04:05 Sep 23, 2023

Thanks Rob! Yeah, I've had so many characters named Jake, Paul and Brad, I needed to branch out into the Roberts. I didn't know what to write about last week, when I was staring at this weirdly runny cheese I've been buying here and wondering how safe it is to eat. Was funny doing research on youtube. 1/2 the internet passionately says the secret to health is to never ever eat a meat or dairy product, ever. The other 1/2 passionately says the secert is to drink milk straight from a cow you keep in your backyard. I guess the people like me...

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AnneMarie Miles
16:04 Sep 22, 2023

Congrats, Scott! This was such a fun story. Your cheesey topic inspired my Widower story this week Who doesn't love cheese? Ha! Hope you're celebrating this today, happy Friday!

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16:31 Sep 22, 2023

Thx so much! Happy to finally land a cheesy wisconsin story into the zone😅 will give your entry a read tomorrow, look fwd!

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Unknown User
02:59 Sep 20, 2023

<removed by user>

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02:44 Sep 21, 2023

Thanks! Michigan, nice. I'm not sure soft cheese works for a grilled cheese sandwich, def a hard cheddar i think!

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Mary Bendickson
21:26 Sep 17, 2023

Say 'cheese'😁 Say great job on the shortlist!🥳 Say, thanks for liking my Walking to California

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03:36 Sep 18, 2023

hehe wisconsin gets free marketing everytime people take photos.

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AnneMarie Miles
19:19 Sep 17, 2023

I love the originality of this: a story about cheese. And it's relevant! People are concerned about what they're eating now more than ever. Could even add a non-dairy cheese merchant to spice things up - ha! I love the reveal at the end about the two working together. That was an unexpected surprise, nicely executed. Love the humor that shines through: "if you say so." Good work, Scott!

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03:34 Sep 18, 2023

That's a great idea having a non-dairy cheese merchant haha, I could def see that being v funny having them as a bystander. She'd def be a beneficiary of the feuding but probably trying to stay out of it at the same time.

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Philip Ebuluofor
17:27 Sep 17, 2023

Funny one here. Liken it to one prison Essay I read in Lithub. It made me laugh nonstop.

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03:28 Sep 18, 2023

Feuds in prisons are probably not that different than feuds at a farmers market lol.. people are all the same.

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Philip Ebuluofor
16:38 Sep 18, 2023

I don't believe you. Humans may be humans but prison is to be equated to the farmer's market. I was once inside and I have been to the farmers' market.

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Hi, Scott. [The cheese needs to be rotated daily to drain the whey, the process that has been followed for thousands of years in the Rhone-Alpes.] Before and after this, you’re using past tense, but here, you’re using present tense. Did you mean to do that? [Most Wisconsinites still opt for the artificially colored, mass-produced product sold in the supermarket, the stuff that should hardly be called cheese at all.] Once, driving through Eagle River, there was cheese for sale on the sidewalk. Not a farmer’s market, craft sale, street fair,...

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03:33 Sep 17, 2023

Hi Guadalupe, Thanks so much for all those edits. Yeah when writing in past tense, I keep thinking its ok to put factual statement in present tense, but it does look odd when I go back and reread. Happy to hear you enjoyed this! Yeah when driving through the countryside sometimes theres "cheese curds" stand just out in the middle of the cornfields. Maybe today there's some artisan cheese stands who knows. A bit of a stretch for the prompt, I suppose they both see each other as "the devil" even though they are both well intentioned nice pe...

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Kevin Logue
12:57 Sep 16, 2023

I didn't expect to read a story about cheese today, or to be some informed afterwards, but damn I'm glad I did! This flowed very well, was quite engaging, and even a rewarding twist. Nice entry Scott. I noticed three lines you may want to look at: - Eacb month, Robert’s father meticulously - - The American cheese festival took place in San Francisco next month, - took seems wrong here, takes maybe? - It was a two days drive ahead and neither of them were going to change each other's minds. - Think it would flow better as, They had a tw...

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14:20 Sep 16, 2023

Hey Kevin, thanks so much for finding those! It really helps. Writing about things that are going to happen in the future in past tense is so confusing. And happy to hear you enjoyed the surprise of a cheese story to the monster prompt. Its going to be all killers and fantasy monsters this week I guess. I always find myself wanting to write about something unexpected for whatever the prompt is.

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Kevin Logue
15:47 Sep 22, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist Scott!

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16:32 Sep 22, 2023

Thx Kevin!

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Lily Finch
19:51 Sep 15, 2023

Scott, this is a story that should be in the high schools. Maybe it would help educate people about what is going on in the fight. I learned about processing cheese. Always a good tale when learning happens. You certainly made it all work for a great story. LF6

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03:54 Sep 16, 2023

Thanks for reading. Yeah I grew up in wisconsin but knew nothing about how cheese was made until recently. I had been experiment making yogurt and tofu, and cheese actually isn't all that different. I was surprised to find out the skin on cheese like camembert and brie wasn't paper. but actually just a bunch of mold and milk, hmm not sure if thats good or bad. But my main idea was to have a story about two protesters on opposite sides who just aren't going to change their mind about something and how they could find ways to get along wiht ea...

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Lily Finch
16:13 Sep 16, 2023

Yeah, we used to make our own yogurt all the time. I felt like at times if we left it for a bit longer than it should have been it tasted like a white kind of cheese with a tang to it. We don't make cheese anymore. I like it when I read stories that teach me something. LF6

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Delbert Griffith
11:14 Sep 15, 2023

Amid the controversy, creativity springs forth! What a clever idea, both getting attention by promulgating a fight. I love the idea, and I love knowing more about processing cheese. It's so cool how you can weave all of this together and make a worthy tale out of it. Nicely done, Scott. Cheers!

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11:28 Sep 15, 2023

Thanks! first draft, will clean up the flow a bit by tomorrow. I thought it ironic this week while researching this that half of Youtube says, if you go plant-based and quit all meat and dairy, you are guaranteed to "feel amazing!"... and the other half says drink raw milk straight from the cow and "feel amazing!" It feels like they are proposing the exact opposite thing.

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10:58 Nov 29, 2023

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Luca King Greek
17:43 Oct 01, 2023

fun!

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Philip Ebuluofor
11:52 Sep 24, 2023

Lupus. Congrats. I am around second time. I figure I missed lupus the first time, this time a blog post has to come from it.

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