There’s been an outpouring of remembrances about our great friend Ray Deter. This is one of the best we’ve heard so far, from Jonathan White, who for six years met up with Ray every Friday to have lunch. We hope you’ll remember Ray by joining us at A Toast To Ray next Monday (you can buy tickets or donate to the Ray Deter Memorial Fund here). So, what do a back-to-basics dairy man, a sardonic beer lover, and one of the greatest mathematical minds of all time have in common? Take it away Jonathan…
How did you meet Ray and what was your initial impression of him?
We met on a Friday. Friday is my day off—off the farm, that is. On my day off, I wake up at 4:45 AM, load cheese into the van, drive into Union Square, set up my booth, and then turn it over to our “city mice”—writers, dancers, actors, musicians—who staff our market booths. This scheme makes it possible for Nina and me to each get a “day off.” Actually, it’s only about four hours off: She goes to ballet class; I go and get a haircut or go to a bookstore; we shop for groceries in Chinatown; etc.
On this particular Friday, I stopped at the Strand and bought a biography of Pythagoras and headed down Broadway to get my haircut in the East Village. I got a particularly annoying phone call—I don’t recall who or what—but the call dragged on and on and was quickly drawing my mood down and down. I sat down on a park bench chained to the front of a shuttered shop, finished the goddamn phone call, and then headed off to my haircut appointment.
At the barber, I realized that I had lost my book on Pythagoras, so after the cut, I retraced my trail, looking for the shop with a park bench. When I turned up First Avenue, there was a bench in front of a now-open bar. I walked in and asked the bartender if anyone had found a book on the bench that morning. She referred me to a tall, lanky guy at the bar, who happened to be the owner.
“Did you happen to see a book left on the bench out front this morning?” I asked. My question was answered with a question: “What was the book about?” “Pythagoras.” “Well, congratulations! You have just done the good deed of introducing a junkie or wino to the mysteries of Pythagoras.”
Ray’s wisecrack managed to break the spell of my miasma—I looked at the beaming face towering above me and noticed that behind him was a wall filled with blackboards, all inscribed with lists of the finest beers and spirits known to humankind. I suddenly realized that my nasty phone call and lost book had led me to a Valhalla of sorts.
You had lunch together every Friday for six years. Where did you dine?
Nearly always at the bar at d.b.a on First Avenue or, later, at d.b.a in Williamsburg. On only a few occasions did we go out for lunch. As Paul Newman once said about his fidelity to Joanne Woodward, “Why go out for burgers when you can have steak at home?” (Editor’s note: This is one of my favorite quotes, so here here!)
I’d bring my cheese and bread, sometimes some sheep cheese from Dancing Ewe, and whatever else looked good at the farmer’s market that morning: wild strawberries, oysters, raw tuna and scallops, sour cherries, crosnes (aka Chinese artichokes), Red Jacket apricots, etc. We’d drink Saison Dupont, and perhaps a bottle from Ray’s horde in the basement, the gleanings of some previous trip to Europe…or Philadelphia.
What was your most memorable meal with Ray?
Once, we had dinner at Frank’s steakhouse in Chelsea Market. Chris and James—the brothers who owned the place and the butcher shop next door—had dry-aged the full loins of a 14-year-old Bronze Age cow of mine; she had had a full, wonderful life on pasture, and her meat was well marbled with creamy-yellow fat. After 30 days of dry aging, Chris trimmed us some ribeyes for dinner, accompanied by some of Nina’s bread, my cheese, and Ray’s beer. Ray never stopped talking about that meal—it was an epiphany for both of us!
What did you and Ray discuss at lunch?
Lots of stuff: raising kids, running a small business, dealing with regulators, trying to promote quality in a quantity-driven world, staff issues. We had a lot in common, including a lot of things that most of the rest of the world was unaware of. We were kindred empaths. But most of the time we talked about beer, cheese, and love.
Tell us about cheese making at Boblink.
Our cows are living a Neolithic life on pasture, living socially, raising their calves, eating fresh pasture grasses in the mild months and good hay in the winter. Neolithic, but without the predators—except us, of course, but we are much kinder predators than jackals and saber tooth tigers.
Our cheeses are made from the raw milk of our lovely cows. We make about a dozen different styles, including a new cheese, an extra-tall pyramid washed in Redbreast Whiskey, Ray’s favorite.
Ray was a great craft beer lover. Do you enjoy beer and, if so, what is your favorite beer/beer anecdote?
Ray and I both shared a decade-long love of Saison Dupont, and all the other beers brewed by Marc Rosier at Brasserie Dupont in Belgium. Marc also makes cheese and bread at his farm in Tourpes. Ray knew Marc well, but I still have never met him. I tried to go visit Dupont in 1997, but I was shanghaied in Brussels by the US trade delegation and never got there. Ray and I had planned to take a hundred pounds of my cheese and two bicycles to Belgium, and cycle from brewery to brewery, celebrating beer-and-cheese epiphanies at each stop. We also had planned to go to New Orleans together—somehow I’ve managed to never visit that city, and Ray wanted to show me around. Sadly, we missed the chance.