The big cheese. August 1, 2010Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Beemster, Beemster cheese, cheese at Monticello, early American cheese, the Mammoth cheese, the world's largest cheese, Thomas Jefferson
Silence Dogood here. While doing a bit of research for a post I was writing for the SmartKitchen.com blog (I’ll let you know when it’s up for viewing), I came upon the most amazing story. And then I came on something I found even more amazing, and not in a good way. Both discoveries had to do with cheese—a lot of cheese.
I found the first tidbit while trying to find out if cheese was made at Monticello during Thomas Jefferson’s life, and what kinds of cheese he ate. In the midst of my researches, I came upon the strange case of the Mammoth cheese. The Mammoth cheese was a 4’4″-wide wheel of cheese, weighing 1,230 pounds, that was made for Jefferson by a Baptist congregation in Cheshire, Massachsetts and presented to him in Washington in appreciation of his staunch defense of Republicanism (as those who nowadays would be called Democrats were, ironically, then called Republicans).
Now, if today’s Democrats were Jefferson’s Republicans, then who were the Republican equivalents of the day? They were the Federalists. And party fighting was even fiercer at that time than it is today, with such scurrilous and appalling muck being bandied about and printed in the press that no less a figure than George Washington referred to the journalists of the day as “infamous scribblers.”
President Jefferson’s love of luxury, and willingness to pay exorbitant sums to import luxuries, including wine and (as it happened) cheese, from Europe to satisfy his cosmopolitan and gourmet tastes, was well known. And much ridculed by his Federalist opponents. So you can imagine the field day they had with the arrival of the giant cheese. One Federalist mockingly referred to it as a Mammoth cheese, after the fossil behemoth recently described by America’s foremost naturalist, Charles Willson Peale, and the name stuck in the popular imagination: Jefferson himself called it the Mammoth cheese.
Imagine making and transporting such a cheese in 1801, in a world with no factories, no refrigeration, and no motorized transport, from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. (Fortunately, the cheese, which was made in August, wasn’t transported to hot, swampy Washington until December.) The cheese was formed in a 6-foot-wide wooden cider press, a clever solution, since the whey could run out between the slats of the press as more weight was applied to the cheese. It was said that it took the milk from 900 cows to produce the Mammoth cheese.
The Mammoth cheese wasn’t just a political tribute, or a political weapon. It was one of the wonders of the new Republic. People talked about it with the awe and wonder they would use to describe the elephants, lions and tigers that accompanied the Barnum and Bailey Circus a century later, the first such creatures average Americans had ever seen alive.
After reading this amazing story, I began to wonder if a larger cheese had ever been made. A brief visit with my good friend Google revealed that there was one, and only one, and the world had to wait more than 200 years for it. In May, 2007, the Beemster cheese company of the Netherlands unveiled a Gouda cheese wheel that was over 6 feet wide and weighed in at 1,323 pounds. The cheese was sent on a world tour, including a stop in, of course, New York City. It generated quite a bit of publicity and blog posts from those who went to see it on display at Grand Central Station.
But how times had changed. While the Mammoth cheese was greeted as a marvel, the comments on the Beemster cheese were dismissive: Pretty much everyone was surprised that it wasn’t bigger. Our friend Ben told me that when he went to see Stonehenge, he heard the same remark: “I thought it was bigger.” What is it about us moderns, that a six-foot cheese still isn’t big enough? That a fabulous prehistoric observatory is judged by its size? I say shame, shame on us for a bunch of jaded fools. Think how comparatively impoverished our experience of the world is when nothing impresses, amazes, delights us. We are the losers here.
In case you’re wondering, the fates of the two cheeses were as different as their reception, and this time, President Jefferson’s cheese was the loser. The Mammoth cheese, after hanging out in the President’s larder for four years while making frequent appearances at receptions and state dinners, was “retired”: Rumor has it that its remains were dumped unceremoniously into the Potomac River in 1805.
The Beemster cheese met a far more satisfactory fate: It was melted into the world’s largest fondue as a fund-raiser for charity.
I should note in closing that even the commentors who dismissed the 6-foot-wide cheese for its puny size all were in agreement that Beemster cheese—samples were offered to everyone who came to the display—was delicious. Here in the wilds of scenic PA, I’ve never seen Beemster cheese for sale. But now, I wish I could find it.
‘Til next time,