Seven Bald Men and a Kumquat Tree: Rob Connoley, Silver City’s Non-Native Son | Amy Gentry

from Gastronomica 13:3

I have never seen a restaurant kitchen quite like this. The Kenmore oven/stove combo with its electric range is the same make and model as mine at home, but of an older vintage. Something that looks like a thirty-year-old camping grill sits on the counter next to the stove. Mason jars filled with rustred hackberries, bumpy green cholla fruit, and twigs with the leaves still attached litter the shelves and countertops. On top of one sits a piece of spongy grayish-green moss.

“What’s that?” I ask. Rob Connoley, skinny and tall, with a shaven head and lashless blue eyes that blink red in the smoky kitchen, picks it up.

“Oh, just something I found in the woods. I’m going to take it to Naava.” That’s Naava Konigsberg, local herbalist, whom Rob consults for information about the various plants he forages, before taking them to the biology lab at Western New Mexico University for further analysis. “I’ll ask them, is it edible? Sustainable? Are there toxic levels of pollutants?” He puts the moss back down. “Don’t worry, I also try it myself first. If I die, I won’t serve it.”

Rob keeps up the steady stream of chatter while he drops a squiggle of pale green watercress puree on four plates, crosses it with a bright saffron-yellow streak, and plants a white ball on one end that looks like fresh mozzarella (it is actually a curd made from sweet corn shoots). At the other end of the plate, trapezoidal hunks of acorn bread lean drunkenly against one another like the ruins of a small city. He plops a couple of elderflower boba—glistening, translucent balls resembling oversized golden whitefish caviar—onto a small heap of greens and moves to the next plate.

In December of 2012, Rob’s restaurant, the Curious Kumquat, was named #39 in Saveur Magazine‘s Top 100 destination restaurants. To understand how truly unlikely this ranking is, you should know that he has a PhD in sports psychology but no culinary degree and no restaurant experience at all outside of the one he opened in 2008; that he works almost completely alone, prepping, firing, and plating all the courses and washing his own dishes by hand at the end of the night; and that the Curious Kumquat is located in a mountain town with a population of 10,000 four hours from the closest commercial airport.

ABOVE: Cholla fruit. Photograph by Amy Gentry © 2013

Despite all this, the restaurant regularly draws a crowd increasingly made up of food tourists from New York, Chicago, and LA. Between Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day, it’s been a stressful week. “We served seventy tables for dinner last night,” he says. “That’s the biggest dinner we’ve ever done, and it’s not even tourist season yet.” He pauses and rubs his head. “I’m exhausted, and I still haven’t done the courses for tomorrow night.” Tomorrow, the restaurant is closed for one of the experimental tasting dinners Rob throws every few months. This time he’s planning ten savory courses based around chocolate, presumably in honor of Valentine’s Day. With forty reservations, the dinner is sold out.

ABOVE: Moss and other ingredients in Rob’s kitchen. Photograph by Amy Gentry © 2013

“You mean you haven’t prepped them?”

“I mean I haven’t invented them.”

Leah, the single server working the floor, pokes her head in to tell Rob that the five-top she just seated wants to be out in an hour. “They’re watching the game.”

“The game?” Rob says incredulously.

She nods. “And they want the tasting menu.”

Rob shakes his head. “Seven courses in one hour, so they can watch the game,” he says. “Unbelievable.”

Although a server works the front of the house tonight, Rob still leaves the kitchen frequently to talk to the tables, which means he has to prep and fire and plate the courses with lightning speed. Just watching Rob buzz around the awkwardly laid-out kitchen makes me tired, not to mention activating long-dormant waitress neurons that make me feel like I should be grabbing a plate and running it out to table six, or at least refilling water glasses. Since I haven’t had dinner yet, it also makes me hungry, which gives me the hiccups. Rob notices.

ABOVE: Foraged acorn financier with foraged watercress sauce, sweet corn shoot “mozzarella” and sesame seed oil powder. Photograph by Jay Hemphill © 2013

“Picture seven bald men,” he recommends, opening the oven to check on a pan full of braised lamb acquired from the local 4H. “Tyler swears by it.”

Tyler is Rob’s husband. According to him, the hiccup cure works by engaging both sides of your brain: there are the images of the bald men themselves—and they have to be seven different bald men—and then there’s the number seven, which is more difficult to picture than one through six. While your mind is working on the problem, you’re not thinking about your body, and when you stop thinking about your body, it can let go and relax.

When I look at Bear Creek I see a bunch of leafless trees clumped around a stream about four feet wide at its widest points, rocks half-immersed in sludgy, algae-clogged water, and dead leaves curling thick on the forest floor. When Rob looks, he sees food.

The morning that I go foraging with him, the only acorns and hackberries are lying on the ground, and Rob won’t touch them. “If the animals haven’t eaten them by now, they’re bad,” he explains. It’s mid-February, and although minuscule buds on the gray branches hint at an early spring, our 6:00 a.m. hike down the trail to Bear Creek Ranch, an abandoned piece of heavily forested property in the Gila Mountains, is a chilly one.

Rob points out an animal track here, a pile of dead, curled-up grape leaves there. “You can eat those,” he says of the leaves. “I’m trying to figure out something to do with the dry ones. I have some rotting in a jar right now, to see how they taste.” Decomposing leaves sound more like mulch than a meal to me, but later I will put one in my mouth and chew the papery, tasteless thing until zing, right at the end, I taste the sweet-sour tang of grape hiding in the pulped leaf. “Just don’t say ‘fermenting,'” he continues. “Everyone is fermenting everything right now.”

We trek down to the water, where floating clumps of tiny ear-shaped leaves form the only green patches in a sea of brown. “Watercress is my favorite,” he says, “It’s delicious, it grows year round, and it’s abundant.” He doesn’t take from this batch, though; there’s a better place upstream. “Here,” Rob says, pointing at it. “The motherlode.” A huge shoulder of rock blocks the stream, forming a little pool where the watercress leaves have taken over. They lie on the surface of the water in patchy, sun-dappled blankets, Monet-style.

Rob is not excited about putting his hands in the freezing cold water, so I offer to help. “You want to get your hands all the way under there, pull them up by the roots,” he says. “I’ll put them in water when I get back to the restaurant.” I push up my sleeve and dip my hand into the icy water, wiggling my fingers down in the muck underneath a promising clump of green leaves, dredging up black, sodden roots, pine needles, and mud along with the handful of watercress. I’ve only pulled two or three clumps before he says, “Okay, that’s enough for today,” and we dump our handfuls in the plastic grocery bag he brought for this purpose. “No more than ten, fifteen percent at most. It’s in my best interest to let this pool regenerate, so I can come back here.”

That’s all we get for the morning’s hike—less than a pound of watercress. If Rob had more time this morning, we might head another mile upstream. But tonight is the tasting dinner, and Rob is nervous. He still hasn’t planned all of the courses, and there’s the bustling lunch crowd to prep for, the sandwiches and soups that help pay the bills. When he picked me up that morning, when it was still dark outside, he told me he hadn’t slept a single hour since we parted ways the night before. He lay awake, staring at the ceiling.

“I tried picturing bald men. George Costanza, Daddy Warbucks, Lex Luthor. Me.” He smiles. “It didn’t help.”

Rob got into the locavore movement in the late ‘90s, when it was picking up steam around a confluence of worries about the environmental effect of industrial farming, the global dominance of American fast food chains, and the amount of fossil fuel needed to haul food grown at one end of the world to consumers at the other. The principles behind local food are good: grow, sell, buy, and eat close to home.

That changed for Rob the day he bit into a local hothouse tomato that was as tasteless as anything he’d ever bought at a grocery store. “I was like, why are we even doing this? Is it more nutritional? Does it taste better?”

Others were coming to similar conclusions. By introducing non-native species to climates and conditions that are less than ideal, gardens and organic farms may produce food that is local in name only. Foraging, the practice of harvesting food from the wild, is a logical extension of the locavore movement—only take what wants to grow.

Critics of foraging point out that it can alter the natural environment, sometimes ravaging native plant populations beyond repair. Sensitive to these critiques, Rob set out to learn ethical foraging practices from Doug Simons, a Grant County local who claims to have foraged all of his food for seven years. Born in rural Colorado, Simons went on a spirit quest when he was seventeen, sitting out in the wilderness for three days without food or water, guided by a teacher of his from the Lakota tribe. In addition to being a wildcrafting and foraging expert, he refers to himself as a “plant communication specialist” and carries a little leather pouch of dried tobacco on his belt for making offerings to the “plant people.”

Rob doesn’t talk to the plant people, and has only tried Doug’s more esoteric methods once, when searching for the perfect yucca plant. (It didn’t work.) Still, he treats them with a healthy dose of respect.

“There are different plant-specific rules, seasonal rules. If it’s a grove of cattails, I’ll only take pollen from fifteen percent of the plants, and I do only one little flick from each plant.” He demonstrates, squinting as if a cattail head were in front of him and miming a well-aimed flick. “You could get fifteen flicks from each plant, but I need them to pollenate and propagate.” Additionally, he insists the plants be located as far as possible from known sources of toxic chemicals, including not just pesticides, but parking lots, roads, and run-off from roads.

He has been working on an ethical foraging manifesto. So far, it goes like this:

I will not forage if I can see a road, no matter the size.

I will not forage downhill from a road or within a mile of one, even if I can’t see it.

I will harvest no more than fifteen percent, or whatever percentage is necessary to maintain the thriving and propagating of the plant.

When you take a look at the manifesto, the problem with foraging-focused restaurants becomes self-evident: how can a restaurant located close enough to the kind of wild land that yields abundant, pollutant-free ingredients charge enough to make the massive investment of time and energy involved in foraging worthwhile? Yet the fashion for foraging has created a slew of modish foraging restaurants in big cities. Rob grumbles that when a chef in a major metropolitan area (he won’t name the restaurant) can boast about gathering dandelion greens from a vacant lot on the next block over, the fad has officially triumphed over the food’s flavor and health value. “Who knows what chemicals are in those greens?” he says. “I wouldn’t eat them. I certainly wouldn’t serve them.”

Rob is also skeptical of foraging chefs who glean off the edges of commercial or private property. Ultimately, problems similar to those he found in the locavore movement have begun to disillusion him with the foraging trend as well. “I’m no expert, but I know what’s right and wrong. Stealing and serving polluted food is wrong,” he says. “I’m not the foraging Nazi, but people need to think about this stuff.”

Incidentally, there are no kumquat dishes on the menu. Kumquats are not native to southwest New Mexico.

Rob admits to having a touch of the “best little boy in the world” syndrome.

Tyler has it too, he says. Both men came out in their late twenties, having grown up just on the cusp of the generation of gay men who came out earlier, in their teens. “I think a lot of us funneled our energy into being overachievers. When you’re not telling your family or friends, you do all this stuff to make up for that. And when you’re in the closet, you don’t have romantic relationships to worry about either, so all that energy just goes straight into your work.”

Rob Pauley grew up on the north side of St. Louis—”not the good side”—in a liberal Catholic family, the child of a single mother and the youngest of two. Early on, he set himself the goal of getting into a Catholic college prep high school on the west side of town, and he made it. In high school, he started running fifty-mile “ultra-marathons.” At 6 foot 4 and 170 pounds, he still has a distance runner’s build; back then, he weighed 135. “I was so fragile, you could snap me in half,” he says.

ABOVE: Doug Simons, wildcrafting expert and plant communication specialist. Photograph by Amy Gentry © 2013

After an undergraduate career at Loyola University that included a little bit of everything—he started out double majoring in art and education, then moved to a marketing and business major with a focus in nonprofit management—he went on to get a PhD in sports psychology from Purdue, where he researched identity formation in college athletes. Describing their mentality, he shakes his head. “For them, first place is winning, and second place is losing,” he says. (I am reminded of this when he speaks of obsessively checking the restaurant’s online reviews first thing in the morning.)

When Rob graduated, he was offered a job running a gym in Colorado. He and his girlfriend of the time, an MA in health promotion at Purdue, wanted to move in together, and wound up getting married in order to placate her ultra-conservative family. Rob came out two years later, at the age of twenty-seven. “It was a really good marriage,” he says. “We were best friends. I cooked and cleaned and did all the gay things.”

ABOVE: Rob Connoley at work. Photograph by Amy Gentry © 2013

Rob met Tyler Connor in the summer of 2000. Rob was freshly back from a hiking trip in Peru, visiting his family in Indianapolis with the intention of leaving for a long mission trip to South America in the fall. Tyler was a seminarian at Earlham School of Religion, where he wrote, for his thesis, a midrash about eunuchs in the Hebrew bible. They met at a church-sponsored movie night. “That night he told me he was planning to come out to the Catholic mission organization,” says Tyler. “I thought to myself, there’s no way he’s going on that trip. So I made sure that we hung out together as much as possible. It took him about two months to decide he couldn’t go. And by then we’d fallen in love.”

Since Rob had the more marketable degree, they agreed to move wherever he found a job, leaving Tyler to write full-time. Rob applied for a job in nonprofit management in Silver City, and was hired based on a phone interview. Faced with the prospect of moving to a town with a population of 10,000, located at the terminal point of a state highway three hours off 1–10, Rob and Tyler spent exactly one weekend thinking it over. “On Monday we quit our jobs. And then we bought plane tickets to come out and look at the place.”

We are having this conversation at a dinner party hosted by the foster parents of an eleven-year-old Rob and Tyler are hoping to adopt. The boy is bright and energetic and clearly adores both of them. Rob has been sitting across the room tending the kid’s skinned knee—sheepishly, since he was the one who encouraged him to show off on his skateboard—but, hearing Tyler tell this part of the story, he looks our way. “We were crazy.”

“We were crazy,” Tyler agrees. But, having grown up in a missionary family in South Africa, he felt a strange affinity for the landscape right away, the combination of dry, red cliffs like Rhodesian sandstone covered with scraggly pines. Tyler Connor and Rob Pauley settled down, got married in the liberal United Church of Christ where Tyler is now pastor, and combined their names to “Connoley”—a naming convention Tyler says he was drawn to from the age of nine, before he had an inkling he was gay.

Tyler’s missionary family was far more conservative than Rob’s liberal Catholic one. His coming-out was accordingly more traumatic, and included having to play along with an “ex-gay” therapy to avoid getting kicked out of his Christian college. A deeply religious man, he struggled through many years of spiritual searching before returning to Christianity via one of the most liberal strands of American Protestantism (the United Church of Christ is unaffiliated with the Church of Christ).

Rob, by contrast, speaks of his closeted years with a peculiar gratitude. “I went to college in New Orleans. The drinking age was eighteen, and it was 1986 to 1990, the height of the HIV epidemic. If I had come out then, I know I would be dead now.”

If it seems odd to credit such a choking restriction with saving one’s life, keep in mind that Rob seems to flourish in an atmosphere of restrictions.

The Javalina isn’t the only coffee shop in Silver City, but it may have the most interesting history. Located at the corner of Bullard and Broadway, the two streets that constitute downtown Silver City, the Javalina’s spacious rooms are filled with mismatched couches, dining room tables, potted plants, and jigsaw puzzles beneath high, white, tin-tiled ceilings. The walls here are hung, as they are everywhere in Silver City, with oil canvasses, including Southwestern landscapes, abstract moderns, and a trio of painted replicas of community theater posters. “This is an artist community,” Tom Hester says drily.

ABOVE: Bullock Street, downtown Silver City. Photograph by Amy Gentry © 2013

Tom, a statistician from Washington, D.C., who retired here with his wife Consuelo, works in the archive annex at the Silver City Museum. He modestly deflects the title of “town historian,” but it’s hard to imagine anyone knowing more about the town than Tom. His eyes burn brightly under bushy eyebrows and wire-rimmed glasses, and he leans forward when he talks, a slow, nasal drawl emitting from beneath his mustache. Tom tells me that the Javalina was once a merchandise store owned by H. B. Ailman, who sold a profitable gold mine in Silver City, opened a bank that quickly went bust, and then met up with Edward Doheny in Arizona. The two later drilled the first oil well in Los Angeles. (A thinly veiled version of Doheny was memorably played by Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.) Ailman also discovered the Gila Cliff Dwellings, eight-hundred-year-old structures built into natural caves halfway up a cliff face in the Gila National Forest. He stumbled across them while avoiding jury duty.

Tom has a theory about most things in Silver City, including the Curious Kumquat, where he and Consuelo are regular customers. “I say Rob’s food is a sort of joke,” he says. “Rob hates when I say that, but it’s true. He deconstructs the food, and then he reconstructs it. And what you end up with is a pun—what you’re eating is not what you’re eating.” I think of the mozzarella balls that are actually corn shoot panna cotta, the pomegranate boba that look like caviar. “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is his favorite movie. You look at that movie, and you can figure out what he’s doing in the kitchen.” (Watching the film later, I am at a loss. I wonder who is being fed pages of his own books, and who is being cooked and eaten.)

Tom’s theory about Silver City is oddly similar to his theory about the Kumquat: it’s like a giant pun. Picture a copper mining nestled in the Gila Mountains just east of the continental divide. The northernmost city in Grant County, it’s not on the way to anywhere, excepting the Gila National Forest, whose cliff dwellings and hot springs draw light tourism. Founded in 1870, Silver City looks like other small western cities, but unlike most, it was never a railroad town—more of a loading dock for ore. There wasn’t so much as a switchback; trains had to back sixty miles into the station.

Speaking to outsiders, citizens of Silver City frequently cite this isolation as a reason why so many diverse populations can live alongside one another peacefully. Conservative Anglo-Protestant ranchers, Catholic Hispanic miners, liberal hippie retirees, gay artists, and spiritual seekers attracted to the Sufi retreat outside of town—they live and work side by side in the tiny town that dead-ends in the Gila Mountains. As Rob says, “It’s so small and so isolated that people have to get along. If they don’t like gay men, where are they going to eat?”

Where most see isolation from the outside world, however, Tom Hester sees forgotten money trails and political influence that have fueled internal conflicts since the town’s inception. Tom has picked apart the town history, deconstructed it down to its basic units of old newspaper clippings, correspondence, deeds, and ledgers. And when he reconstructs it again, it is not diversity that he sees, but divisions—lasting, bitter, and often silent. Mexican mineworkers may no longer be relegated to Chihuahua Hill, where running water and paved streets were scarce into the twentieth century, but there is still a stark racial divide between the historic downtown district, where the houses all have wind chimes and colorful pendants and hand-tiled walls, and the outskirts, where Hispanic miners and service workers form a second city marked by the presence of a Walmart and a strip of sagging motels with kitschy signs.

In the late 1940s, Silver City was the site of a famous mining strike, an incident that divided the town: striking Mexican miners and the Catholic church on one side, Anglo-Protestant miners and bosses on the other. The sheriff eventually buckled to pressure from New York investors to crack down on the labor unions, and a court order against the miners took them away from the picket lines. The miners’ wives, however, took over the strike, and were eventually arrested and marched to the county jail in a public relations disaster, some with small children in tow. Director Herbert Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten and an avowed Communist sympathizer, came to Silver City shortly afterward to film a barely fictionalized movie version of the strike.

Biberman cast most of the parts with original participants, including union leader Juan Chacon as the character based on himself. Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played the female lead, was deported during the making of the film; it had to be finished with a body double. The film only screened once in New York in 1954, just long enough for Pauline Kael to hate it and Bosley Crowthers to like it, before it was locked away, the only film to be blacklisted in the U.S.

A few years ago there was a symposium on the film at the Silver City Museum. Aging white labor organizer Clinton Jencks (who played the character based on himself in the movie) gave a moving speech, which was recorded by the museum. Some of the Mexican women who had participated in the strike itself were at the symposium too, but their panel, held in soft-spoken Spanish, was not recorded. Meanwhile, Tyler informs me that a local storytelling project is getting nowhere with the Hispanic population, because those old enough to tell the stories aren’t talking. “They know better,” he says. “You don’t tell those stories to white people. White people don’t want to hear them.”

As for the more recently arrived inhabitants of Silver City—the hippies, the artists, the retirees, the gays—they are an awkward fit with the town’s most established residents, the low-income mineworkers and libertarian ranchers who do not appreciate efforts to protect the endangered wolf population, among other things.

It was the Fourth of July when I first discovered the Curious Kumquat. The bed-and-breakfast where I was staying was tricked out with red-white-and-blue ribbons. My friend and I were searching for a restaurant that would be open on the holiday, and the proprietor pressed a few flyers for local restaurants into our hands. One photocopied menu on the side table caught my eye—venison, foraged greens—and we asked about it.

She shrugged. “Oh, that’s that new place.” (At the time, the Kumquat had been in operation for five years.) “It’s kind of strange.” She pointed to another menu. “This is where the locals go. You know, that other restaurant isn’t even open half the time. You have to call. No, I wouldn’t go there.”

It’s the big night, the night that Rob has been stressing out about so much that he canceled lunch earlier that day—the second time in eight years.

At the Javalina, Tom Hester may have held court, but at the Curious Kumquat, his wife Consuelo reigns supreme, wrapped in a fur with a big sparkling butterfly brooch. I am given the seat of honor right across from her at the long table where many of Tyler and Rob’s church friends are sitting. Throughout the meal, Consuelo gets special treatment; Rob brings her an extra bite of her favorite course, spoonfuls of experimental sauce that didn’t make it into the dinner. She tells me that when she and Tom first started eating at the Kumquat, she used to play a guessing game, deciphering Rob’s puns into their distinct flavors. She describes her first encounter with boba, the translucent balloons of flavor formed by hydrocolloids that look like large caviar. Consuelo put one in her mouth, thought and thought, and finally said, “It tastes like beets.” From that day forward she has been his champion taster.

ABOVE: Chocolate-covered aloo gobi bite with bitter chocolate mirroir, cardamon butter, and local bee pollen. Photograph by Jay Hemphill © 2013

As courses begin coming to the table, Consuelo concentrates on the task at hand. She holds each bite in her mouth for a moment, chews and swallows it carefully, then methodically eradicates the sauce, using her fingers to clean the dish down to its original Ikea whiteness. Then she pronounces. The chocolate-dipped aloo gobi sitting in a puddle of scented butter is perfect. She adores the beet soup in a pint glass, although she can’t taste the cacao smoke. She struggles a bit with the salmon-stuffed cocoa ravioli wreathed with strands of bitter moss in a pool of murky squid ink, then points out that if you eat the moss in the same bite with the salmon they balance nicely. I agree; furthermore, sipping on the malbec pairing brings out a nice smoky flavor in the moss. The chocolate tamale topped with crunchy bits of caramelized black garlic is universally adored.

Then comes the main course: the goat with a rub of cocoa powder, peanuts, and vanilla beans, garnished with a beautiful fuchsia fleurette of beet foam. The taste is delicious, wild and rich, but the texture is sinister. Several are complaining that it’s too rare. The atmosphere grows tense as knives and forks make screeching noises on the plates, mingled with the sound of silver clinking to a resting position as, one by one, the more delicate constituents of the United Church of Christ give up. When the server comes to the table, Consuelo draws herself up to her full height. “The goat did not go.”

“Didn’t go?”

“Tough. Inedible.”

Tyler leans forward. “Sometimes with these local goats that’s a problem,” he says. There’s a brief chuckle over the phrase “local goats,” but it does not distract Consuelo from the matter at hand.

“Someone needs to tell Rob about cabritos,” she says. “The young goats.”

By now Rob himself has appeared in the doorway. “It is young! Like, four months.”

“No, no, I’m talking about two months. Two or three weeks, even. Cabrito.”

“This isn’t Mexico,” Rob says impatiently, and disappears to chit-chat with the other room, which is filled with strangers and tourists.

Rob always talks to each table, even when the restaurant is packed, and he remembers most of their names. It makes every guest feel special; plus it helps him sell wine, which is where Rob’s restaurant makes its money. (At $44 for the standard seven-course tasting dinner and a $5 discount for locals, he certainly isn’t making it off the food.) In the kitchen yesterday, Rob boasted about his tableside manner, but a moment later admitted he desperately needs the positive feedback. “If they’re not gushing when they leave, I haven’t done my job,” he says.

A few minutes later, Rob pokes his head back in and says, “By the way, the other room loves the goat.” Consuelo rolls her eyes.

Near the end of the meal, everyone at the table has had a fair bit of wine and a lot of food, even the ones who skipped the goat. Rob appears every once in a while to sag, exhausted, against the doorframe, and then disappears into the other room to talk up the folks who are visiting from out of town.

Tom Hester, who is sitting on my right side, begins to reminisce about the parties Rob and Tyler used to throw before they opened up the restaurant. “Tell her about the cheese club,” Tom calls across the table to Tyler, who is sitting near the end.

Years ago, when they owned a gourmet grocery store down the street in a space that is now the Yada Yada Yarn Store, Rob and Tyler had a cheese club. Tyler says they were getting drunk over dinner one night and lamenting the lack of good cheese in town. Tipsy, Rob decided they should start a club. “We could call it the Cut the Cheese Club,” he suggested. “Our motto will be, ‘We Have a Friend in Cheeses.'”

“That’s when I knew it was going to happen,” Tyler says. He reels off a list of parties Rob themed around such fanciful ideas—the Outhouse Open House, with its hinged toilet seat invitation, or the “hoedown,” when they mailed out unshucked ears of corn with invitations tucked carefully inside the husks. Once Rob threw a birthday party for one of the town’s oldest citizens, seemingly for the excuse of sculpting the man’s likeness from a giant hunk of Velveeta cheese.

The first Cut the Cheese Club meeting took place in Tyler and Rob’s modest, one-story house. “Half an hour before the party was supposed to begin, Rob all of a sudden looks at that carpet and grabs a little corner and pulls it up. He says, ‘There’s a beautiful wood floor under here.’ And next thing I know, he’s pulling up the carpet.” Tyler sighs dramatically. “People are coming over for a party in twenty minutes, and Rob is literally pulling up the carpet.”

“The floors were beautiful!” Rob protests. “Aside from some foam and some carpet tacks.”

The Cut the Cheese Club became a huge success. Rob and Tyler would order the pricey cheeses, portion them, and label them. Members were supposed to keep the tags for the cheese they had eaten and pay at the door on the way out to offset the cost. The club grew and grew, quickly becoming the most popular party in town. It outgrew residences, and Rob and Tyler started renting venues. People passing through town would somehow hear about the cheese club parties and gate-crash. Soon enough, Consuelo interrupts indignantly, people weren’t even paying—they would just float in, hoover up some cheese, and take off. Moreover, they were drinking the expensive bottles of wine that Rob and Tyler ordered and leaving bottles of cheap wine in their place, a blatant abuse of the BYOB rule. “We would end the night with a dozen bottles of ‘two-buck Chuck,'” Tyler complains, miming pouring a bottle down the sink.

Eventually, there were hundreds of people showing up at each party. Rob began ominously invoking the “final clause” in his emails to the membership. (“Rob had actually written up bylaws for the Cut the Cheese Club,” Tyler explains. “And the final clause stipulated that when it stopped being fun, the club would immediately be put to death.”)

But the last straw was the infamous furniture store party. The club had outgrown the largest venues in town, and the furniture retailer was a venue of last resort. Perhaps putting 250 people and several gallons of red wine in a closed furniture store for an evening was not the best idea. Stained upholstery was just the beginning.

“We had ordered this particular wine to go with one of the cheeses,” Tyler relates. “Rob was really excited about it. It was more than usually challenging.”

“And expensive,” Rob adds.

People who dropped in for the party went, as usual, for the free booze, ignoring the pairings and gobbling cheese at will. However, the wine proved too challenging for casual gate-crashers (and, it is just possible, for some of the regulars as well). Raucous, intoxicated guests began tipping their glasses of wine into the potted plants. In the morning, every plant in the store was dead, the furniture store owners enraged.

Nobody else in town wanted to host the cheese club after that. The final clause was invoked, and the Cut the Cheese Club was no more. It would seem that Rob had reached the limits of the town’s patience for highbrow food culture—the haute ceiling, as it were.

Tyler puts it in a more positive light. “The cheese club showed us that there really was a core group in town who would turn out for this kind of thing,” he said. Without the Cut the Cheese Club, Tyler explains, the Curious Kumquat would not exist.

He mused for a moment. “The thing is, Rob doesn’t even really care about cheese, do you, Rob?”

Rob smiles. “Not really,” he says.