How to Cure Homesickness: Try the Salami and Cheese
Far from home, writer Tenaya Darlington’94, aka Madame Fromage, has crafted a foodie’s dream job that taps her Swiss heritage, Midwestern upbringing, and passion for food and culture.
It all started because Tenaya Darlington’94 was homesick for Wisconsin.
In 2005, the native Midwesterner had just relocated to Philadelphia for a position in the English department of Saint Joseph’s University, fresh off a decade of teaching, living, and writing in Madison, Wisconsin. She didn’t know a soul in the City of Brotherly Love, but a friend back home had given her a directive—and an address to Di Bruno Bros., an Italian specialty food shop with salamis hanging from the ceiling and stacks of parmigiana on the counter.
“When you get homesick, this is where you want to go,” her friend advised.
Armed with an address and a hunger that only a Wisconsin cheese—Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve—could satiate, Darlington sought out the shop within weeks of landing in Philadelphia. The house cheesemongers did a double-take when she asked for the very specific alpine-style aged cheese and were curious about how she even knew it existed. When she explained that she’d tasted it in a chef’s kitchen back home, they told her to come back more often. She did. On Tuesday mornings, to be exact, when the cheese shop had fewer customers and her morning was free of teaching.
“It was so alien to be in a place where I knew nobody and had no connections,” Darlington says. “And cheese, believe it or not, became that connection.” It wasn’t long before the Di Bruno cheesemongers were texting her to let her know when a new cheese had come in, and that they’d be holding it for her.
Incidentally, Darlington wasn’t raised in the state whose name (and residents, and NFL team, and so on) is synonymous with cheese-loving and eating. She wound up in the land of curds and whey and cheese-heads “quite by accident,” she explains with a laugh.
While she’d initially matriculated at Smith College as an undergraduate because she was enamored with the idea of attending the writer Sylvia Plath’s alma mater, she became disenchanted with an English program that proved light on writing courses. Her mother, Sonja Darlington, had just taken a job as an education professor at Beloit College (she retired in 2018), and told her the little college in Wisconsin not only had plenty of writing courses, but also an entire major dedicated to the craft. The younger Darlington decided to give it a try, and what was meant to be a yearlong experiment turned out to be a perfect fit.
“I don’t think I’d be a full-time writer now if I hadn’t gone to Beloit College,” she says. “It totally changed my life.”
Meeting the Di Bruno Bros. cheesemongers has had a similarly life-altering impact. As Darlington tasted her way through the Di Bruno offerings under their expert tutelage, she took copious notes, a habit she formed as a reporter in Wisconsin, where she had written about everything from dive bars to Friday-night fish fries to up-and-coming chefs for publications like the Isthmus, where she was food and features editor for a time.
“It had never been my intention to write about food, but I grew up in a really food-centric family, so it came naturally,” says Darlington, who has also published a novel and a collection of poetry. When she was growing up, Sundays with her family in Ames, Iowa, inevitably included a beautiful and thoughtfully curated cheese board for lunch, a tradition in keeping with her mother’s Swiss heritage.
With books of cheese-tasting notes mounting, Darlington felt compelled to do something with the material. Noticing that her Saint Joseph’s students were increasingly interested in blogging, she decided to log her tasting notes online. Thus her blog, Madame Fromage, was born.
Then as now, nothing online stays secret for long, and it was only a matter of time before the Di Bruno cheesemongers found the Madame Fromage blog and started posting comments. At one point, an eminent cheesemaker from a remote part of Scotland commented that he loved how beautifully she wrote about his cheese. From her cheesemonger friends’ perspective, “it was as if Bruce Springsteen had reached out personally,” she laughs.
Things snowballed from there. The blog led to a formal blogger/writer-in-residence collaboration with Di Bruno Bros., which led to a book deal.
“I’d been taking notes for five years, I’d eaten my way through the entire store, over 350 cheeses, and I’d written down all of the tasting notes and everything I’d tried with it,” she says. The Di Bruno Bros. gave their full blessing to the project, and in 2013 Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings was published by Running Press.
The interim years have been a flurry of travel, creative collaboration, writing, and publishing for Darlington, who still lives and teaches in Philadelphia. Though her brother André lived 900 miles away when they first started writing a book together, the siblings have collaborated on several books in recent years: a comprehensive cocktail bible, followed by a collaboration with the television network Turner Classic Movies pairing food and libations with classic films, and most recently Booze & Vinyl: A Spirited Guide to Great Music and Mixed Drinks.
“We always say we like to muddle cocktails and culture,” she says.
For years, she’s also taught a course at Saint Joseph’s on food writing, a class that filled within minutes the first time it was offered.
One of her most recent endeavors ties together many of these threads, her passions for teaching, writing, cheese, and people. After her first cheese book came out, it garnered the attention of Anna Juhl, founder and owner of Cheese Journeys, a travel company which does exactly as the name implies: takes people on cheese-centric trips, both in the United States and abroad. Juhl asked to meet, and Darlington now serves as a Cheese Journeys educator and co-host, guiding tours across the world. A typical two-week trip, for example, might involve a stay in a 1,000-year-old chateau in the foothills of the French Alps, visits to cheesemakers and the caves where their products are aged, excursions to vineyards and classes like the kind Darlington teaches on food photography, or “How to Talk to a Cheesemonger.”
“It takes a really special person to be a collaborator and co-host for me, and she’s just perfect,” Juhl says. “What Tenaya can do is take a very complex subject in cheese, but because of her passion and her ability to relate to her audience, she can dissect it into something that just comes alive.”
It’s not just Darlington’s expertise that lends itself to these excursions, Juhl says, but her energy.
“Food connects people,” Juhl says. “She has a very astute ability to connect with a shy, introverted farmer—a cheesemaker is often not a real extrovert, you know?—and she can go into that situation and put them at ease, even when there’s a language barrier.”
Given her myriad publication credits and the fact that she writes under the name Madame Fromage, it’s not much of a leap to posit that Darlington’s an expert in her field, and that she knows her career constitutes something of a dream job. But for this mistress of cheese—who’s in the midst of penning another book about the subject, due out this year—it’s the people creating the milky wedges and wheels who most fully capture her imagination.
“It makes me so happy to have moved from someone who lived in her head and dreamed of writing fiction to having become a person who really loves being out in the world and writing about actual people and finding their stories,” she says. “For me, it’s this all-encompassing, total sensory experience.”
Lynn Vollbrecht’06 is a writer and editor living in mid-Michigan, where she is primarily occupied with the promotion of U.S.-grown Montmorency tart cherries—which she attests are a great addition to many a cheese plate.