What if Jerome David Salinger had decided to become a cheese and meat importer? Would we still have Catcher in the Rye? Would we still have “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or “For Esme with Love and Squalor?”
These questions may seem out of left field, but they came to mind after watching the Salinger biopic. The film briefly mentions Salinger’s rebellion against his father, who advised him to join the meat and cheese import industry. As someone who has an obsession with cheese and a short history as a cheesemonger, I found this to be one of the most fascinating details of the film — though it did not receive the elaboration it deserved.
I found the richest information on the subject in Kenneth Slawenski’s 2010 biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life. After young Jerry flunked most of his classes and dropped out of New York University, his father Solomon thought it practical to involve his son in what he hoped to make a family cheese and meat empire. After all, the import business had treated Sol well. He had turned to J.S. Hoffman & Company, an importer of not-so-kosher European cheeses and meats, after his previous job at a movie theatre failed him. The meats and cheeses of his new job were sold under the name Hofco in the United States. Sol was quickly promoted to general manager of Hoffman’s New York division and took a great deal of pride as the manager of a cheese factory. He only wished the same for his son Jerry. But Slawenski explains:
... Jerry, of course, was in no way inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps, so Sol half sweetened, half disguised the offer. After informing his son that his "formal education was formally over." Sol "unelaborately" presented him with the opportunity to travel to Europe under the guise of refining his French and German. Hoping that his son would develop an interest in the import business along the way, Sol arranged for him to travel to Poland and Austria as a translator for a Hofco business partner, in all likelihood a ham exporter named Oskar Robinson, one of the richest men in Poland and known throughout Europe as "The Bacon King." Salinger agreed. In reality, the choice was not his to make. Whatever options he had once had in the matter had been extinguished by his failing grades.
So Salinger gave in to his father and joined The Bacon King in Europe to try out the cheese and meat life. (Clearly, Sol Salinger had serious connections in the industry — he’s even credited as a president of Cheese Import Association of America on their website!) Slawenski goes on to describe how Sol’s plans for his son unravelled:
Salinger was sent north to the Polish town of Bydgoszcz, where he stayed in a guest apartment of Robinson’s meatpacking factory and experienced the more basic side of his father’s business. This included getting up before dawn and toiling with peasants in the city slaughterhouse. Each morning, Salinger would trudge off to butcher pigs destined for the American market as "canned picnic hams." He was accompanied by the head "slaughter master," who enjoyed shooting his gun into lightbulbs, over the heads of squealing swine, and at birds that dared cross his path. It quickly dawned on Jerry that whatever the life of a meat exporter might involve, pigs held sway over much of it. If Salinger learned anything in Poland, it was that he was not suited for his father’s line of work.
For a man like J.D. Salinger (and luckily for his fans), there would be no settling for the strange security of slaughtering pigs and selling cheese in bulk. According to Slawenski, “Salinger hated his father’s attempted solution to his problems” and tried to move on with his own plans — but after the “Cheese Reads” post I wrote earlier this summer, I couldn’t help wondering: Regardless of whether or not Salinger joined the cheese business, which cheese would he be? So, in tribute to Sol’s no doubt good intentions for his son, I’ve come up with the perfect gourmet cheese counterpart to J.D. Salinger:
Harbison from Jasper Hill Farms is part Holden Caulfield and part Salinger in that it has a hard time letting people in. But don’t let that fool you: The cradle of spruce bark around this cheese is just there to protect this delicacy that literally oozes with flavor. The secret is knowing the right way to get to its core: for the Harbison, that’s slicing off the top of the rind to get a taste; for Salinger, it’s reading his prose and the interviews with those who knew him best.
Harbison’s earthy, woodsy taste imparts the subtle pine notes of Vermont, cousin to Salinger’s New Hampshire. In fact, Jasper Hill Farms is just two hours away from Salinger’s hideout in Cornish, making it the perfect cheese for a New England local like Salinger to indulge on. Plus, this cheese is a fit rebellion against the mass-produced cheese “loafs” and spreads distributed by Salinger’s father’s company. And Harbison can’t simply be nailed down as a hunk of brie. This is a cheese that goes its own way.
Aside from Salinger’s gorgeous out-of-print story, “A Girl I Knew,” which was written about a romance he experienced in Austria during his European cheese-and-meat tour, it’s impossible to know exactly how much the writer’s involvement in the food industry influenced his writing. If anything comes of this history, it’s a longing for stories by Salinger about his days in the slaughterhouse, The Bacon King and the strange, sadistic slaughter master who used to shoot at light bulbs just to make the pigs squeal.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Leaf Unturned and Italics Mine. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese.
KEEP READING: More Literature
- 22 Out-of-Print J.D. Salinger Stories You Can Still Read Online
- Cheese Reads: 10 Amazing Cheeses and Their Literary Counterparts
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