On a train to Vienna, I met a cheesemonger.
That may sound like the opening line to a pulp novel or children’s cartoon, but it happened in real life. And the ensuing conversation was fascinating.
To be honest, I had no idea what a cheesemonger was until she explained it to me. It’s somewhat akin to a sommelier, with the object of interest cheese instead of wine.
I was surprised to learn that there were more than 1,800 varieties of cheese, and that cheese can be classified by age, texture, flavor (from mild to extra sharp), types of milk (cow, goat, sheep), region of origin (Parma, Gouda, Colby and Cheddar are all places), and method of preparation (sometimes bacteria are involved, other times not).
There’s even a biannual Cheesemonger Invitational, in which contestants from across the nation compete head-to-head. Who knew?
The word “monger” comes from the Old English term “mangere,” which was used to sometimes disparagingly refer to a merchant or broker who traffics in a single article of trade and embellishes their wares to enhance their appeal. Throughout history, there have been fishmongers and ironmongers and peltmongers (animal skins) and costermongers (fruits and vegetables, of course). Unfortunately, there have also been hatemongers, rumormongers, warmongers and scaremongers, but let’s not go there.
The word may have originated from the Greek term “manganon,” which suggests something charming or bewitching. I have to admit, once I became engaged in conversation with my cheesemonger, I was indeed somewhat bewitched. Had we not been stuck on a train, I likely would have bought anything she suggested.
That’s the mark of a monger, I think, at least in its modern usage — someone who has unusually deep expertise combined with a love of their calling. In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell theorized that it takes some 10,000 hours to develop mastery of a skill or topic, something few people achieve. But I don’t think all “outliers” would qualify as mongers; if their dedication isn’t accompanied by delight, they may be masters, but not mongers.
In that light, it’s interesting to reflect upon how many mongers I’ve actually come across. What got me thinking about this topic was meeting another one just this week. He’s an engineer, author and expert in street construction who began our conversation by describing himself as “a curve guy” and mentioning that he just returned from a long family road trip during which he took some 3,000 photos of random stretches of roadway.
That’s a monger move if there ever was one. I can only imagine the looks of dismay on his kids’ faces as he stopped the car again and again and made their “are we there yet?” plaints ever more desperate. As much as I would have sympathized with them, he captivated my attention for 45 minutes opining about asphalt.
I have newfound appreciation for the country roads that take me home. Then again, I’ve never met a “roadmonger” before.
In a day and age when we can instantly pull up on our phones an overview of any topic and put on a surface display of knowing what we’re talking about, meeting a monger is a delight. Someone who can effortlessly and ardently take us for a deep dive into a single subject feels increasingly foreign and ever more valuable. Mongers may not always be highly paid, but even when they’re out of a job, they’re never out of work. It’s just part of who they are.
It makes me wonder in what area I might have monger potential — perhaps “brandmonger”? Or “strategymonger.” Or maybe “corporateculturemonger.” The fact that I can’t say for sure indicates I still have work to do and passions to cultivate. Nothing wrong with that.
Most of us are good at our jobs. Some of us rise to the level of expert. But few achieve the status of monger. It strikes me as a good goal to pursue.