November 26, 2007
Finding Curds in the Whey

A little more than a year ago, Mandy Johnston was a Chico magazine editor. She worked reasonable hours, and she dressed fashionably. Today, she's a farmer, working 14-hour days, milking 35 cows, and wearing rubber pants and a hairnet while she makes cheese at her family's Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese Co. of Orland. "Before, my mornings were leisurely. Here, the mornings are cold and dark," says Johnston.

Concerned about losing her feminity because of her career change, she dashed off an email to TV cooking and talk-show maven Rachael Ray to ask Ray how she seems so feminine after a day in the kitchen. Ray invited her to New York for a makeover, and to appear on "The Rachael Ray Show." Johnston's appearance is to be this Wednesday, airing in Sacramento at 3 p.m. on Channel 3 (KCRA).

(I asked for before-and-after photos to go with this posting, but the show's publicist said they wouldn't release any until after the show is telecast to preserve the "surprise" for viewers.)

"I'm now an ash-blonde cheesemaker who still works 14-hour days, but with a little more confidence and a little less boyishness," says Johnston, who before the makeover was a brunette.

To prepare for the makeover, the show's fashion consultant, Steven "Cojo" Cojacaru, visited the family dairy to check out Johnston's wardrobe and to get a lesson in cheesemaking. "He dug through my closets and labeled my best dresses 'placemats' and 'aprons,'" says Johnston.

In New York, the show's producers took her to a fashionable boutique to select a new wardrobe. "I saw labels there I'd only dream of trying on. The pricetags were equivalent to a load of hay," recalls Johnston.

The biggest change, however, was switching from being a brunette to being a blonde, a transition that continues to throw her, especially when people at the Sacramento farmers market don't recognize her. "They do say blondes have more fun, but I'm still working so hard I haven't had a chance to test it, though I do feel more brassy."

On the farm, she makes between 800 and 1,100 pounds of cheese a month in nine styles. With Cojocaru, she made Northern Gold, a traditional semi-firm cow's-milk cheese. On the show, she hands out samples of Stout Cow, a creamy cheese aged in Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. stout. One of her other cheeses is the light but buttery Blondie's Best, which predates the makeover and takes its name from Johnston's pet cow.

In Sacramento, Johnston sells Pedrozo cheeses at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Taylors Market and the Sunday morning farmers market under the Capital City Freeway at 8th and W. Cheeses also can be ordered online.

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