Cheese lovers may believe, with a fair amount of supporting evidence, that Cathy Blodgett Gaffney ’89 has the best job in the world—one in which a runny wedge of Brie de Meaux is a tax-deductible expense.
Gaffney runs the cheese division at Wegmans, the upscale Northeast supermarket chain whose Ithaca outpost has provisioned Cornellians for decades. Based out of the company’s Rochester headquarters, Gaffney travels the U.S. and Europe visiting cheesemakers and tasting their wares—from tracking down the best English Stilton to pondering the delights of Italy’s parmigiano reggiano.
But for Gaffney, whose nametag marks her recent milestone of twenty years with the company, the best part of the job comes on the front lines, where the cheddar meets the cracker. “The most fun you can have is talking to a customer about cheese,” Gaffney says in her office, where one wall is dominated by a motivational poster depicting a perfect red rose over the word “QUALITY.” “We find that we don’t just do it at work, we do it all the time. Since I’ve been in this job, I’ve been invited to a lot more parties.”
An agricultural economics major in CALS, Gaffney is a gregarious blonde who favors dramatic sartorial choices: today, she’s sporting a zebra-print blazer, an oversized silver necklace, purple and pink eyeshadow, and some serious nails. Later, during a visit to the specialty cheese aisle at the Wegmans flagship store in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford, she happily buttonholes customers who seem to need guidance. “How are you doing?” she asks. “Can I help you find anything?” One woman demurs—but another comes by, looking for an extra-sharp cheddar. “Do you like it when it kind of bites you back?” Gaffney asks. The woman nods, and Gaffney proffers a Yancey’s Fancy XXX Sharp. “This is really sharp at the back of your tongue, so you know you’re eating cheddar,” she tells her. “If you’d like to try a piece, I can take you over to the counter and they’ll give you a taste.” The woman departs with the cheese on Gaffney’s recommendation, and a third customer comes by. “How’re you doing?” Gaffney asks, just as chipper as before. “Can I help you find something? If you need a taste, just let me know. Ah, you’ve already got a good thing in your cart—the pancetta. I just used some last night on leftover pasta.”
For Gaffney, dairy products are a lifelong passion; her lactic bona fides are unimpeachable. She grew up on a 700-acre dairy farm south of Rochester, where she took care of the registered Holstein calves every day after school. “I never had store milk until I went to college,” she recalls. “We always had milk from the barn. We had a little can, and every night my dad would bring up milk from the bulk tank, and we’d pour it into the bottles and skim the cream off.” At fourteen, Gaffney became the youngest person ever named master dairy showman at the New York State Fair. At sixteen, she was crowned Livingston County’s Dairy Princess; duties included riding in parades, visiting every elementary school in the county, and handing out cheese samples at supermarkets. As a Cornell freshman, she won the dairy division of the annual student livestock show—earning a spot in the finals, where she had to handle other species, including a horse and a beef cow. “But the pig got away from me,” she recalls with a laugh, “so I lost.”
Gaffney initially majored in animal science with an eye toward vet school, and was a member of the Cornell University Dairy Science Club. (Yes—its acronym is CUDS.) She eventually switched, craving a mixture of agriculture and business; a professor suggested she apply to Wegmans, saying her personality and interests made her a “textbook buyer.” She took on her current job a decade ago—overseeing both deli operations and specialty cheeses, but not the mainstream dairy aisle where Kraft slices abide. Back then, she admits, neither retailers nor consumers were particularly savvy about international cheeses. “The first holiday season I was here, I went into the stores and they were throwing out the brie just as it was getting perfect,” she says. “They thought it was bad, because the rind was a bit discolored and it smelled a little like ammonia. Nobody knew.”
To educate staff at the seventy-nine Wegmans stores, Gaffney created Cheese University, a curriculum on the provenance and care of the 300 or so varieties the company sells. Wegmans is in the process of establishing its own affinage (cheese aging) facility—to Gaffney’s knowledge, the only one at a U.S. supermarket chain—and the company is working with CALS to foster artisinal cheesemaking in New York State. Over the past decade, Gaffney notes, the American cheese palate has come a long way; people are more willing to venture into unfamiliar territory, especially if they have guidance. “I don’t want cheese to be intimidating,” she says. “I go back to one of the lines I used when I was Dairy Princess: ‘It’s nature’s most nearly perfect food.’ It’s milk, enzymes or cultures, and salt—that’s it. I want people to feel comfortable with it, enjoy it, and make it part of their everyday. We don’t want to dumb it down, but we want it to be approachable.”
Back at the specialty cheese case, Gaffney points out a French cow’s milk cheese called a Mimolette. Though it tastes something like a parmesan, it looks almost alien: bright orange, with a surface like polished rock and a rind that resembles old-fashioned sponge candy. The cost: $16.99 a pound. “Sometimes one of the hardest things is helping folks understand the difference in price,” she says. “This is a naturally rinded cheese, which means it was kept in a cave and had to be cared for, brushed and turned and so forth, to develop the rind and protect the cheese—versus one that has plastic around it and might have been aged in a bag. To appreciate the value when you’re paying $15 or $20 a pound, it helps to know everything the cheese has gone through to get here.”