Grantville, late summer 1635
James Lamont, formerly of MacKay’s company, looked at the curb and sidewalk outside the grocery store with a grimace and swallowed. Step up, or walk thirty feet to the driveway, then thirty more back to the door?
“Okay, James,” he muttered to himself, “Set y’cane. Now brace y’self, lift y’ good leg and ‘get-er-done.’ The pain isna’ as bad as all that.” James clamped his jaw tight, closed his eyes, climbed the curb to the sidewalk. Then he stood there for half a minute before he dared to open his mouth. “Okay. I’m lyin’. Yon pain is as bad as all that. But, t’doctor says ye hav’ to walk for it t’get better.” When he could open his eyes he limped into the grocery store.
“That wasna as bad as last time,” James tried to convince himself. It hurt like hell to walk. It also hurt just to sit. The pain woke him up unless he got so drunk he passed out. Then when he woke up the hangover competed with the pain in his hip and leg. Still, better to take a walk and endure the agony rather than stay home and put up with the pain and the boredom.
Not that he found the grocery store all that interesting. James usually bought bread and the little meat he ate, already cooked at the open-air market in the park near the swimming pool, because he didn’t have to walk as far. He’d been told the market started before the Ring of Fire as a “farmer’s market,” and some up-timers still called it that. Now, though, a bit of anything might sell there, from garden produce to hot food—James favored the dumplings off one of the carts—to any used clothes someone wanted to sell.
The butcher filled the back wall of the grocery; produce the left, and the bakery the right. The front of the grocery store held the check-out counters. The center was split between aisles of shelves and the service counter, with its barrels, and bags of the bulk goods. Customers’ purchases were measured, weighed or counted out into the containers they brought with them, or they bought a container off a shelf.
Boredom turned his thoughts to his home in Scotland—which he hadn’t seen in years—and the beauty of the moors in the springtime. Then his thoughts turned to his grandame’s table. He’d buried her before he left home, but his mind could still smell the bread baking on her hearth. This left him craving the tastes of home. The grocery store held the answer to one of those cravings.
James stood in front of the bulk food counter and looked at the memory which called to him like the sirens of Greek mythology, and caused him to hobble, slowly, on three legs, through the streets of Grantville trying to avoid the curbs on the sidewalks as he crossed town to fetch a small bit of food that he really could not afford.
Under a glass dome, behind the sliding glass door of a refrigerator in the bulk foods section, sat the remaining half of a four-inch-tall ten-inch-circumference, mostly pale ivory-white, round of cheese. It was flecked with points of blue and labeled “bleu cheese.” It only seemed like the grocer wanted its weight in gold. It was brought up from France by courier. The price guaranteed that it only sold in small quantities. There wasn’t a lot of it and the store didn’t have it all the time. It was a true blue instead of the blue-green James grew up with, but it was as close to the cheese aged in the caves in the Pentland hills of Lanarkshire as anything he’d found since he left Scotland.
In short, he came to the grocer’s to buy a taste of home, a memory, comfort food.
“Johann, giv’ me a dollar’s worth of that outrageously expensive cheese,” James said, pointing at it even though he didn’t have to, because Johann knew exactly what he was going to ask for and how much of it he was going to buy. Johann cut the small wedge from the round and wrapped it in the waxed paper James gave him. He hoped he could wipe off this sheet of waxed paper, iron it flat with a drip or two of new wax and reuse it one more time before he had to buy a new sheet. The electric iron and ironing board that came with the house was a wonderfully useful thing, but when the paper got a hole in it there wasn’t much you could do. The cheese went in the basket along with half a loaf of rye bread and a jar of pickled cucumbers.
One of James’ housemates, Lukas, worked blowing glass into the molds for those jars; the shop that produced them worked year ’round, and sold everything they made to the new canning plant. He’d told James, “Herr Gruber, the plant’s owner, thinks that when people start redeeming the deposit on the jars and the canning company starts reusing them the shop will slow down. So far, though, there aren’t very many jars being redeemed. So we are working twelve hour days at least to harvest time. I guess a lot of the jars are going out of town or being used for other things.”
Those jars, full of just about anything edible and ready to eat, were well on their way to pushing all the non-groceries which had filled the store’s shelves out the door and turning the grocery store’s focus back to convenience foods.
James started the return trip home. Before he made it to the top of the first hill he cursed himself for buying the jar of pickles as pain shot up his back and throbbed in his head in perfect time to the beat of his heart. “Why didn’t I wait till I had a ride to the store, or I had someone else to get them for me?”
When he got home James sat at the picnic table in the backyard for a good long while. Finally he went into the kitchen and made a cheese sandwich for lunch, using equal parts of the strong-flavored blue cheese and a soft white cheese sold in the market. It was so mild it was blah, but it was cheap and filling and that was needful if he wanted more than one meal out of the expensive imported bleu. The local soft white was a raw natural cheese with no preservatives added. James once heard a couple of up-timers shopping in the market talking about it.
“What is it? Un-creamed cheese?” One of them asked the one who was buying a ball of it.
“It ain’t really cheese yet, it’s just sort of half dried curds, but I like it. It is sort of like creamed cheese, but drier.” The other up-timer answered. “It’s cheaper than the real cheese the dairy makes, but this here sells good and they don’t have to wait while it ages.”
He covered the cheeses and the bread with the waxed paper, put them in the refrigerator and then headed for the nearest ale house to start his afternoon of drinking. He planned to head home before he got too drunk to walk, and make another cheese sandwich for supper. It was a good thing that a little of the strong tasting cheese went a long way. After supper he would drink enough of whatever he could afford to let him get to sleep for the night.
His supper was delayed.
Three days later, when he got out of the hospital, James went before the judge.
“Yes, your honor,” the barmaid said. “I can tell you exactly vat happened. The two men here, three days ago sat at a table getting drunk. They ver talking theology and one drunk vas getting loud. James sat at the bar like he usually does. One drunk said something about it being high time Canterbury made the Scottish Presbyterians toe the line. His companion tried to get him to quiet down.”
“Keep it down, Thomas. This is Grantville. They figure folks have the right to go to hell any which way they want, and the church has no business stopping them.”
“They can be as daft as they please. I don’t give a damn, as long as they pay us on time. But what we do in England is none of their business. The church is and should be run by the properly appointed authority and not tossed to and fro at the sway of whatever strikes the fancy of a gathering of loud-mouthed fools even if you get fancy and call them a presbytery.”
“Thomas, why don’t y’ listen t’ David ‘n’ shut y’r gab, afore y’ get y’self in a world of hurt?” James said, without so much as turning his head to the table.
“Well, if it isn’t James Lamont, who can’t stay on a horse!” Thomas sneered. “Take your own advice and keep your mouth shut. Someone who knows what they’re talking about needs to tell you Scots what to do for your own good. So listen to your betters and shut up.”
James finished the dregs of his beer and slid off the stool to leave.
“Well, look at that! Wonder of wonders! Would you believe it? An idiot Scotsman who actually knows how to listen to his betters,” Thomas said with a sneer in his slurred speech.
James stopped, turned and looked at Thomas. “Don’t y’ think you should be taking that back, Thomas?”
“Take it back? When it’s nothing but the simple truth? Well, go on. Get your ugly face out of here. If I had a dog that looked like you I’d shave its ass and teach it to walk backwards.”
“It was like a baseball game. James’ stick would have hit Thomas’ head like a home run ball, only he slipped.” The barmaid laughed.
The judge said “Order, miss. Order.”
“Ja,” she said. “Anyway, Thomas and his chair fell over onto the floor and Thomas hit his head on the floor hard. David looked at his partner on the floor and sighed. Then he stood up and beat the crap out of James. The police arrived, Thomas and James vere on the floor and David looked like he’d been trampled by a horse. But you know that, Your Honor.”
“So there was provocation,” the judge said, looking at James. “But provocation is not justification. And if you hadn’t lost your balance you could have cracked the man’s head wide open and maybe even killed him. You’re lucky the charge is simple brawling and not assault with a deadly weapon or even manslaughter. Thirty days or three hundred dollars.”
“Hey, I thought you were in jail for another week,” Lukas greeted James when he got home.
“The sheriff got tired of feedin’ me and threw me out early,” James said. He looked in the fridge, “Damn.”
“What’s the problem?” Lukas asked.
“That bleu cheese I had left has gyane all hairy wi’ mold,” James said, unwrapping his wax-paper bundle. He hadn’t had a lot of bleu cheese to begin with, so he had little hope of trimming off the mold and saving some. He’d left the white cheese on the same bread, in the same wrapper. The blue mold in the cheese had invaded and clearly conquered the bread, and sent streaks of color running through the soft white cheese.
“I’m surprised someone didn’t throw it out,” James said as he trimmed the fuzz off of what was left of the white cheese.
“Hey, it wasn’t smelling too bad. It was on your shelf in the fridge, your rent was paid and we knew you’d be back.” The house had three rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen with a small laundry utility room off the kitchen. After the bunk beds, there wasn’t space in the room James rented for a chair. There was a book case, a mirror and a small built in closet. The house plans called his room a nursery and there were walk-in closets in town that were bigger. Lukas and his wife rented the bedroom and a family of five rented the living room. The refrigerator had three shelves.
“One good thing about bein’ in jail,” James said, “I saved on groceries for three weeks. Another good thing is, now I’ve nae need t’ replace the walking stick I broke.”
“You’re getting around a lot better then?”
“Aye. Listen, do you know if they’ve any bleu cheese left at t’ grocer’s?”
“Nein, they sold the last of it over two weeks ago.”
James tasted a little bit of the saved cheese, then he had a bit more and put the rest, about a quarter of a cup, back in the fridge.
“I’m headin’ down t’ market,” James told Lukas. “Can I be gettn’ you anything?”
“A half dozen potatoes, if I can pay you come payday.”
“Anything else?” James asked. Lukas had done the same for him on occasion. Disability pay from the army while he recovered was tight.
Down at the market the cheese seller said, “Hey, James, no cane?”
“Nae, I’m gettin’ about a whole lot better. Sell me a cheese.”
“Sure. Half or quarter?” It was cheap. The people who bought it mostly bought enough for today, and maybe for tomorrow, a little now and a little later.
“No, a whole one.” James said.
The cheese seller raised an eyebrow and looked the over the basket of mostly softball sized heads of cheese for a small one.
“Nae, a bigger one please.”
“Well, you’re coming up in the world now, aren’t you?” the cheese man said, putting the first one back for a middling-sized sphere. “Or did you find yourself a girlfriend?”
He weighed the cheese and James paid without answering.
The baker asked the same question, “Half or quarter?”
James never bought more bread than that because that was all he could eat before it went stale. There was no reason to eat stale bread when you could buy more the next day.
“A quarter loaf. Do you have any day-old rye?” The day-old bread was cheaper.
“You want a quarter loaf of day-old?”
“No. I want a quarter of fresh to eat today. I want a half loaf of day-old for something I want to try.”
Half of the new cheese and the day-old rye went to the back of the shelf with the last of the salvaged cheese all wrapped up together in waxed paper. James was hoping he could make his own bleu cheese. After all, it worked once. It seemed like it should work again.
The reason the jail let him out early was so he could keep an appointment with the army’s doctor. The letter telling him to come in caught up with him in jail and he asked for a furlough. Instead they let him out and told him not to come back.
“What do you mean you can’t use me? The doctor declared me fit for service.”
“Yes, he did, and if I had an opening I’d put you on. But we had to fill it while you were off for six months and right now the roster is full. I’ll move you to the top of the waiting list,” the quartermaster’s clerk told him.
“You mean I’ve got to live on the injured list stipend until you have an opening?”
“Of course not. The doctor said you were fit, so you’re off the sick roll. The stipend is over.”
“How am I supposed to pay the rent and buy groceries?”
The clerk scribbled a note. “Go see this man and he can probably find you a job.”
Since he could stand to sit for eight hours, but wasn’t up to hard labor, James ended up as the night clerk at the Holiday Lodge. It hardly paid a living, and it sure didn’t pay a good living. The best part of it was he could scrounge meals in the kitchen at about ten cents on the dollar, compared to what they charged in the dining room as long as he ate out of the leftovers refrigerator.
So he got to work early and ate. Then he mostly watched the front lobby for eight hours and had a second meal before going home. One of his duties as night clerk was to watch the indicator for the steam boiler. A small steam line ran to a glass bubble behind the front desk, with a small ball in it. As long as the ball was bouncing around everything was fine. If it shut down he was to call the engineer.
“Why do you need to run a boiler in the summer?” James asked.
“It’s the cheapest way to run the refrigerators and freezers.”
“You mean you make your own electricity?”
“Not that much. If we had electric freezers we’d have to have a compressor, and then we’d have to find something or other to use as a coolant. I guess there’s a way to do it without a compressor but that takes a coolant too.”
“A coolant?” James asked.
“A liquid or gas that draws heat away. They wanted to use ammonia because they could get it cheaper than anything else, but when the owner found out he said absolutely not. That stuff stinks. They make ammonia out of piss, you know. They told him it would be in a sealed unit and unless it leaked he would never smell it. The owner said he didn’t care, if they used ammonia to cool the food he’d never be able to eat here. He said it would feel like he was eating something he knew someone had pissed all over. They told him it was in pipes and never touched anything else but the inside of the pipes. But the owner didn’t care. He wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Instead we use the steam to suck a vacuum and then we can use brine to make ice.”
“I don’t see how,” James said.
“It’s simple really,” the engineer said. Then he talked about it for the next half hour. “So you see, it’s simple.”
James figured he should agree or else the man would try and make him understand. It worked. He didn’t need to know how. As long as the wizards could make magic and were reasonably polite about it, then all was right with the world as far as James was concerned.
A month and a half after he landed the job, while James was eating at the end of his shift the chef began screaming his fool head off.
This was the only real drawback of eating at the kitchen table. Every second or third morning it seemed like the head cook found something to be unhappy about. This morning his target was the kitchen manager. As far as the chef was concerned his unhappiness was something the whole world should know about.
“We are out of bleu cheese!” The chef bellowed at the top of his lungs. “The menu calls for bleu cheese dressing. It is part of the Thursday special. People ride the trolley out here from Grantville just to buy my daily specials. How am I supposed to make bleu cheese dressing without bleu cheese?”
The manager tried to soothe the chef, “It was supposed to be here on Monday. The courier from France is late. I’ve already checked. The grocers are out and any other kitchen in town which might have any doesn’t have any to spare. They were counting on the same courier. Make a ranch dressing. The customers will understand.”
The chef’s bellowing reached a new high. “If it were only the Thursday special, yes! But the McDonalds’ banquet is tomorrow night! It has been scheduled for weeks! Mr. McDonald made it quite clear, he wants precisely the menu ordered. I personally told him everything would be perfect! He was promised bleu cheese dressing. And no! Do not tell me he will understand! This is special to his wife. He wants her to be happy! She will want bleu cheese dressing. If she is unhappy all of Grantville is unhappy! I’m ruined!”
“Just calm down,” the manager said. “Don’t you think you’re exaggerating a little?”
“Just calm down?” the chef screamed. “Exaggerating? Have you seen the guest list?” All of this was at the top of his lungs in a full-bore, exploding pressure-cooker, rage.
“It’s a small banquet. Hardly all of Grantville by any means.”
“Exaggerating!” Somehow, against all odds, the chef’s bellowing of this one word question was actually louder than the last.
“Everybody in Grantville does not have to be there! Everybody who is important will be! Have you seen the guest list?”
The manager didn’t get a word in edgewise.
“How many meals have I cooked for Jimmy Dick when he was telling everyone that other place—” The chef would not mention the name out loud. “—had better food? He is on the guest list! And, you had better believe, if anything, if anything at all, is not perfect, and I mean absolutely perfect, all of Grantville will know it. Jimmy Dick will see to that!
“My reputation is ruined! Do you hear me! I’m ruined! If you cannot get me what I need to cook the menu I will quit! No! Not will, have! Do you hear me! I quit! You have two weeks notice!” This was nothing new. In the six weeks James worked at the hotel the chef had quit at least three times that James knew of, but this time it really did sound like the man was serious.
When the chef quieted down, at least a little, and went back to work the kitchen manager headed back to the pantry office darkly muttering, “Where in the world will I ever find bleu cheese?”
As he passed by James asked, “Would three pounds of bleu cheese make a difference?”
“There isn’t three pounds of bleu cheese left in town. Everyone was waiting for the courier.”
“I might have three pounds of bleu cheese in the fridge at home.”
“James,” the kitchen manager stopped, making eye contact as his face lit up, “I’ll pay retail for all you can get me. Shoot, I’ll pay double for it this morning.”
“Let me go see what I’ve got.”
When James got home from work he opened the fridge and pulled the waxed paper bundle out.
Andy, the oldest child of the family renting the living room, looked over his shoulder. “Have you got a science project going there?”
“I guess you could say that. I’m making bleu cheese.”
“Hey. The French don’t have refrigeration, how do they do it?”
“Back in the Pentland Hills of Lanarkshire they did it in the caves. So I suppose the French do too.”
“What’s it taste like?” Andy, Andrew to his mother, had Grantville English down pat—”what’s it” sounded like one word.
“Ask me again in about two months and I’ll give you a taste. This is going out to the Holiday kitchen.”
“You’re giving them the whole thing?”
“They’re buying it,” James named a price. Andy whistled. “So everything I don’t need to start the next one is sold.”
Back at the hotel’s kitchen James tagged along when the manager plopped the two and a half pounds of almost blue cheese on the counter in from of the chef.
“It looks funny.” The chef sneered as he stuck his finger into it and then into his mouth. He nodded, smiled, and said, “It’s mild, but tangy. Did the courier arrive?”
“No. James had this.”
“Well, find out where he got it and get me some more of it for next week. This is going to be so much better to work with.”
The manager looked at James who shook his head. “Two months,” James said.
“Well, send a rush order to wherever it comes from.”
“I made it,” James said. “‘Twill take six weeks to two months to make more.”
The chef’s eyebrows went up. “You made it?”
James nodded. The chef actually smiled. “This is good. In six weeks, I want five pounds. After that I want five pounds a week every week. You can do this, yes?”
“I can pay retail for it,” the manager said.
Summer became fall as it does once a year. School was back in session. Andy screwed up his courage and took his tray to the table where the boys of McAdams Mining held court each day in the cafeteria. It was a rare day that one or more of their fellow students did not have a scheme to propose. The gang of four would usually listen and usually say, “no, we haven’t got that much money.”
No one was really sure how much they had. The rumors ran all the way from, “They’re just working for Lyndon Johnson in his mushroom mine,” or “They found a treasure down there and the Abrabanels’ have it invested for them,” to “Those four boys could buy half of Grantville if they wanted.”
Andy had no idea one way or the other. But he did have an idea about how to make some money, and they were the ones who could make it happen. He waited while the gang of four argued about the mushroom mine.
“Yes, it will take a long time to recoup the cost. But if we put in shelves we can double or triple production,” Ebert said.
“I’m not sure Lyndon will want to spend the money. He likes a steady cash flow,” Ludwig replied.
“If he’s not willing to invest and expand then we should buy him out,” Ebert said.
“That is not right, Ebert,” Ludwig said. “He’s been good to us. Mushrooms were his idea. We wouldn’t have the mine without him.”
“This is business. It’s a matter of principle. A business must grow or it will die,” Ebert said.
“Ebert, I’m in the same business class as you are,” Ludwig argued. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little carried away? The mushrooms are doing fine. Besides he wants way too much to sell out.”
“If we can double or triple the volume, it isn’t too much to buy him out.”
“And there is a limit to the market for fresh mushrooms. We’d have to dry them and that is even more space and time,” Paulus said.
“Time is money.” Ludwig continued his argument over business principles with Ebert.
“Especially when we have money sitting idle. We need to do something with it,” Ebert answered Ludwig. “We’ve got to expand. If we don’t expand, then we’re stagnant. A living company needs to be growing.”
Then Ebert answered Paulus, “We can sell them to a canning factory.”
“Ebert, I wish you hadn’t taken that business management course. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having money sitting in the savings account. Besides we can only sell mushrooms to the cannery in season,” Paulus countered.
“Un-uh,” Ebert squeaked. “Dietrich will keep canning as long as he’s got something to can.” Dietrich and his wife were running a small canning operation out of their kitchen. “We should take a lesson from that. We have got to keep expanding. If we double our output he can run a batch of mushrooms a day. Otherwise they can add mushrooms to just about anything. Momma said she saw a jar of meat and mushroom gravy on the grocer’s shelf. Dietrich will buy them. He already buys up anything our vendor has left each day down at the market.”
Andy waited for a break in the discussion before he interrupted. It was pretty much the same argument the gang of four had been having for over a week. This was why he had finally screwed up his courage and decided to bring his idea before the bar. “Excuse me,” Andy said.
The conversation stopped and every head at the table looked at him.
“If you’ve got room in the mine, I know what you should do with it.” The other boys waited. People at nearby tables quieted down also. A retired teacher who was subbing that day saw it happen; he called it “an E.F. Hutton moment” and laughed even though no one else seemed to get the joke.
“Bleu cheese,” Andy said. “Our housemate is making it in the refrigerator. One head of cheese a week. He says in Scotland they do it in caves. He buys the cheap heads of white cheese and six weeks later he sells it as bleu cheese. Have you seen what the grocery store is getting for it? They have it brought up from France. If we can cut out the transportation costs and get the price down, there should be a large market for it.”
“Tell us about it,” Peter said.
“What’s to tell?” Andy asked. “He buys a cheap head of cheese, does something with it, and waits six weeks. Then he sells it to the Holiday Lodge where he works.” Andy sought to drive the point home and close the deal, so he repeated, “Have you seen what they’re getting for bleu cheese at the grocery store?”
Ebert’s face lit up and his head started nodding.
Paulus looked thoughtful.
Ludwig asked the practical question. “What do you get out of it?”
“How about a job?” Andy asked. “Get James to set it up and hire me to work it.”
“Give us a bit to talk about it.” Ludwig said.
“Sure, I can do that,” Andy said and smiled. The four of them never said yes without talking privately it about first. If one of them said no without a closed discussion, that would pretty much settle things. The gang of four did not work by majority rule; nothing happened without consensus, even if three of them had to gang up on the fourth to get it.
When James woke up that afternoon, Andy was waiting for him when he got out of the bathroom.
“Mister Lamont, I’ve got somebody waiting to talk to you.”
“What about, Andy?”
Paulus and Peter were doing homework while waiting at the picnic table in the back yard. There wasn’t any dining area in the kitchen—you cooked your meal and took it outside or to your room.
James recognized the boys as two of four fellows who took turns bringing fresh mushrooms to the hotel’s kitchen every morning. Signing for them was one of James’ jobs if the boys happened to be too early for anyone else to take delivery.
Peter did not waste any time. “Mister Lamont, Andy says you can make bleu cheese. He also says you’re doing it one cheese a week. We want to talk about going into business and exporting cheese here in Germany. We have a cave, and we have startup capital. We can pay you what you’re making an hour at the hotel or you can work for ten percent of net.”
James looked the boys over. “Fifty-fifty seems fairer.”
“Only if you put up half the capital,” Paulus said.
“I don’t have it,” James replied. “Forty percent.”
“Mister Lamont, we have room in the mushroom mine.”
The boys leased the abandoned coal mine from the government. Mushrooms didn’t do as well down one side tunnel where Old Man McAdams once kept his still and aged his whisky.
The boys thought it was because no breeze moved the spores around down the dead-end side tunnel, unlike in the main shaft that opened on two ends on a high face of a cliff left by the ring of fire. The four of them had been arguing for months about what to do with or about that side tunnel. It was tearing them up. The only thing they all agreed on, until now, was that they needed to do something with the space. Now, bleu cheese looked like the perfect answer.
“We have the room, and we have the capital. Andy has seen you make it, so we can figure it out if we have to. But we are trying to be fair. We’ll pay you ten percent of net, or we’ll pay you your rate at the hotel for hours actually worked, but you’ll teach Andy everything you know. So when you go back to the army we still have a cheese master. It was his idea so he deserves something out of it.”
“My hours and ten percent.” James said.
Peter closed up his homework and started to leave.
“My hours and five percent?”
Peter stopped. “Your hours and two and a half. We’ve agreed to give Andy whatever we give you. It was his idea so he deserves something out of it. He has seen what you do. Do you really think we can’t make this work without you?”
“Deal.” James said. “Would you like to see it? Then we can talk about what we need to get started.”
“Sure. Why not?” Paulus said.
And so the famous McAdams’ Blue Cheese was born . . . fathered by a French mold on German curds, accidentally midwifed by a skinflint Scotsman who didna want to pay retail, and nurtured by young opportunists whose sole interest was making money.