Sunday, May 17, 2009

Confessions of a Cheesehead - Part 2

Last week I provided some interesting historical tidbits about cheese and how I became a Cheesehead. This week I want to share a few more personal anecdotes. As far back as I can remember I have always been fond of cheese. Cheese was a staple at my house when I was growing up. Nothing fancy, mind you, but respectable cheeses. I’m not talking Velvetta and Cheese-Whiz (which I am happy to ascribe to French origins), but your generic cheddars and Swiss cheeses.

Cheese was always on the table at my maternal grandparents’ Michigan farmstead regardless of the meal being served. I remember it melted over toast at breakfast, and my grandmother applied generous slices to my sandwiches which went into my lunch pail before I headed off to Acorn School. A block of cheese was back on the table when supper was ready and I always had a slice or two with whatever was being served that night. My paternal grandparents lived in a small town not far from the farmstead, and they always served cheese with their meals. I also enjoyed sneaking into their refrigerator to snitch a few pieces in between meals. The candy was always out of reach and dealt out in small portions at certain times. But cheese . . . cheese was OK! Nothing wrong with eating cheese. It was good for you . . . helped make a body strong, a mind sharp. So I always associated cheese with my grandparents. Go visit them and you get to eat cheese pretty much any time you want.

The last time I saw my paternal grandparents was during the spring of 1974. I was in graduate school at the University of Arizona, and I spent my spring break with them in San Diego where they settled in their later years. At the end of my week-long visit (yes, cheese was on the table every day), my grandmother packed some sandwiches for me for the long trip back to Tucson. Each contained a generous slab of cheese. Right before I left, my grandfather stuffed a brown paper package into my pack. “I wanted to give you something I know you will like,” he said as he patted me on the shoulder. When I got back to my apartment later than night I opened the package and found a large wheel of Wisconsin cheddar. It was a final gift passed from one generation to another. They watched me grow up just as they watched me drive away that final time. They knew me. So it is not hard to understand how I became a Cheesehead. I grew up understanding that cheese was a part of every meal. It’s like baby’s milk in my book!

I have eaten cheeses of every description from around the world (more on this in a moment), but I must confess that my favorite cheese is one that has long tugged at my heartstrings for a variety of reasons. “Bon Brie” was once produced by a small independent cheesemaker in Mapleton, Wisconsin. We would frequently drive out there on weekends to pick up a five-pound block wrapped in red and silver foil. I loved the smell of the old barn where the cheese was produced and stored. I can smell it now as I sit here writing this. It never really goes away. When I went off to college in Florida, my parents would occasionally send me a care package, and it would always contain some Bon Brie Cheese from Mapleton, still wrapped in that familiar red and silver foil. During the year I lived and studied in Germany I received additional packages from home . . . all containing some “Bon Brie.” I received an entire five-pound block for Christmas, and my German friends could not understand why I would want cheese from America when there were so many fine cheeses to be had locally. If someone is not a Cheesehead, they can never hope to understand. “Bon Brie Cheese” evokes a lot of very special memories. Unfortunately, the cheesemaker in Mapleton went out of business a few years back. A black date on my calendar!

A couple of weeks ago I attended what has become for me an annual cheese extravaganza. Each spring for the past five or six years the National Geographic Society here in Washington, DC has sponsored an evening with Steven Jenkins, who is, without a doubt, America’s best known cheesemonger (and, in my book, an honorary Cheesehead). He shares his phenomenal knowledge of cheeses, the places they come from, and the people who produce them. The highlight of these events, however, is the opportunity to taste a wide variety of cheeses seldom seen on this side of the Big Pond due to their ephemeral nature and the cost to import them. Jenkins is always joined by master sommelier Joshua Wesson, cofounder of Best Cellars (and also an honorary Cheesehead), who presents, along with very witty repartee, an interesting selection of wines to compliment the cheeses. I recall another episode of “The West Wing” in which the still fictional Leo McGarry arrives at the White House before dawn only to complain how bad the traffic is around town. Ultimately, he is forced to detour around a police cordon at the National Geographic Society, on 16th Street, just a few blocks north of the White House. McGarry’s equally fictional deputy asks what possibly could be going on at the National Geographic Society to require a police cordon? The answer is very simple . . . the annual cheese extravaganza with Steven Jenkins and Joshua Wesson!

Writing this I suddenly feel very hungry. I think I will head down to the kitchen and prepare a cheeseboard to be served with a nice Pinot Grigio. Tonight I imagine I will dream of cheese. It won’t be the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s in my blood. In the meantime I will leave you with an interesting cheese fact which you can ponder at your discretion: Did you know that what appears to be the remains of some sort of cheese was once discovered in Egyptian tombs over 4,000 years old? And archeologists tell us that cheese was being made from cow and goat milk in Mesopotamia before 6000 BC! You can look it up!

NEXT WEEK: I will be on a well-deserved hiatus until June 7 when I return with “Zwei Smarte Boys,” a tribute to a good friend and mentor. Until then I am off on another road trip through northern New England and Québec, digging up new tales and random thoughts from the Edge of America and beyond.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Confessions of a Cheesehead -Part 1

This week’s essay (the first of two parts) is, I admit, somewhat unique in its whimsicality. Not at all like some of my earlier postings. It touches, nevertheless, on a very serious topic which has been on my mind recently. The crux of the matter is this. I was born in Chicago and lived much of my childhood in the American heartland. Since then I have lived for several decades here in the environs of Washington, DC and during much of that time I have vacationed primarily in northern New England. Seldom do I find myself back in the land of my birth and youth. Despite my years on the eastern edge of America I still find myself a stranger in a strange land. When you get right down to it, I still consider myself a tried and true Midwesterner at heart. It’s in the blood and the bones and I have little say in the matter. And, as long as I am outing myself, let me confess that I am much more than that. I am a Cheesehead, as the folks in my native Illinois like to refer to their neighbors to the north. This is not to be confused with a “cheddarhead” - those who wear foam slices of cheese on their heads at Wisconsin sporting events. And irrespective of the pejorative intentions when this term of affection was first coined, I am very proud to be a Cheesehead with all the bells and whistles that go with this badge of honor.

So how did I arrive at this epiphany? Well, you need to pay attention here. Over the years I have temporarily shifted my allegiance from one sports team to another depending upon where I lived at the time and which stadium was nearby. There were the Cubs (Wrigley Field) and White Sox (the original Comisky Park), in my hometown of Chicago. Then came the Detroit Tigers and their old barn of a stadium called Tiger Field where I once saw Al Kaline hit a home run into the outfield upper deck. Then there were the Cincinnati Reds at Crosby Field before I was sent down to the minors and cheered for the Asheville Tourists of the Carolina League during a brief hegira to Dixieland. There was a brief return to the Cubbies, and more recently an angst-ridden allegiance to the Baltimore Orioles which convinced me I did not want to jump (and eventually sink) on the Washington National’s ship of state. But I was only kidding myself. My heart has always belonged to the Green Bay Packers and the Milwaukee Brewers, and before that the Milwaukee Braves of my childhood before they stole away in the dead of night in 1966 to some small and insignificant upstart hamlet down south (I understand this crossroads has grown substantially in recent years and may even have indoor plumbing now). But that is another story for another time.

My allegiances are not limited to the Packers and the Brewers, but also to other erstwhile institutions and cultural icons long associated with the State of Wisconsin. More constant and true than my team allegiances is my undying devotion to cheese. I am quite certain it was invented by the state’s native Algonquian inhabitants long before Pere Marquette and his tribe arrived thereabouts, in 1673. He was obviously lost because he kept referring to the place as Meskousing. Really! You can look it up! Some will tell you that it was the French explorers who introduced dairy farming and the art of cheesemaking to what is now Wisconsin. This might play well back home in Paris, where they call it “ le fromage,” but not here. Here it is cheese . . . not the cheese . . . just cheese. If you have ever been to Wisconsin, or have sampled some of its best cheeses, I think you will agree with me here. So there it is. I am a Cheesehead and I’m guessing I always will be. It’s in my blood . . . Green Bay Packers . . . Milwaukee Brewers (and the Braves, RIP) . . . and cheese. So let’s get serious about cheese! After all, it is cheese that has made America the great country it is today.

“Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of the White House, had a two ton block of cheese.” With these words Leo McGarry, the fictional chief of staff to the equally fictional President Josiah Barlet, on NBC’s now cancelled dramatic series “The West Wing,” geared up his staff for the White House’s annual “Big Block of Cheese Day,” a day set aside for staff to meet with groups that seldom get the President’s attention (I told you it was fiction). This inspirational speech reminded staff that it was President Jackson who once invited any and all visitors to the White House to take sustenance from his gigantic block of cheese. As it turns out, the only non-fictional aspect of this story is Andrew Jackson’s big block of cheese, although the real cheese, produced in Oswego, New York and measuring two feet thick and four feet in diameter, weighed only 1,400 pounds when it arrived at the White House in 1835. You can look it up! At the end of his term in office, in 1837 (the cheese had been aging for two years which gave rise to the expression “Something stinks in the White House”), Jackson threw open the doors of the White House to the public whereupon thousands reportedly devoured the block of cheese in just two hours (although other reports claim there was still cheese left when Martin Van Buren moved in). Now, the history books tell us that Andrew Jackson came from Tennessee, but I think it is safe to say that Old Hickory was perhaps America’s first official Cheesehead. He understood the power of cheese and how it can bind the American people together. Yes, cheese has the power to bind. You can look it up!

President Jackson’s cheese may have received more press over the years, but there were other Presidential cheeses of some note. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson, on the occasion of his inauguration, was the recipient of a 1,235 pound cheese, a gift from the good people of Cheshire, Massachusetts who claimed that there were no Federalist cows among the 900 whose milk went into this cheese. Known simply as the “Mammoth Cheshire Cheese,” it was for the sole enjoyment of the White House denizens and was not shared with the public. This may explain why this cheese has received such short shrift in the history books. President Calvin Coolidge accepted a 147-pound cheese from Wisconsin cheesemakers, in 1928, in gratitude for tariffs leveled against cheesemakers in Switzerland. Come to think of it, it you get right down to brass tacks, Coolidge was probably the first genuine Cheesehead in the White House as his father made cheese back home in Vermont and old Calvin grew up with a proper understanding of its mystical powers.

Our Canadian neighbors knew a good thing when they saw it and they produced their own big blocks of cheese (as well as some indigenous Cheeseheads of note). In 1866, a 7000 pound cheese was produced in Ingersoll, Ontario and later exhibited in New York City and in Great Britain. It was immortalized in the aptly titled “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese,” by the Scottish-born Canadian poet James McIntyre (1828-1906). Most of his poems are on the subject of cheese and he was known fondly as Canada’s “Cheese Poet.” You can look it up! Who can forget or ignore McIntyre’s haunting poesy?

Cows numerous as a swarm of bees --
Or as the leaves upon the trees --
It did require to make thee please,
And stand unrivalled Queen of Cheese.

Perth, Ontario, in 1893, was the home of “The Mammoth Cheese” weighing 11 tons, and that same year it was put on display in the Canadian Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was so heavy that it fell through the original wood flooring at the pavilion and was later displayed on a reinforced concrete slab. It received the Fair’s Bronze Medal as well as a great deal of media attention.

Certainly, once American fairgoers in New York and Chicago saw what the Canadians were able to do, it was only a question of time before America’s Dairyland (Wisconsin) stepped up to the plate and produced an iconic cheese true to its roots – a 17½ ton (34,665 pounds to be exact) block of cheddar produced in Denmark, Wisconsin by Steve Suidzinski in early 1964 - the end product of 170,000 quarts of milk taken from 16,000 cows at the behest of the Wisconsin Cheese Foundation. When it was finished, it was sent to the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair for all to behold.

Before I go any further, you must understand that the life of a Cheesehead is dictated by powers and forces others may not fully comprehend. You do not just eat cheese; you revere cheese and those who make it for your enjoyment. There is something karmic about it all; you go where the cheeses are. They beckon to you and you must obey. So it goes without saying that on both of my pilgrimages to the New York World’s Fair on Flushing Meadows, I frequently gravitated to Wisconsin State Pavilion where the “World’s Largest Cheese” was enshrined in a large, specially-designed glass-enclosed refrigerated semi-trailer from Edgarton, Wisconsin and christened “The Cheesemobile.” At the time I was unaware of the various Presidential cheeses, nor had I ever heard of the Canadian “Queen of Cheese” and the “Mammoth Cheese.” Had I known about them, however, I would have quickly realized that none of them could claim bragging rights when matched against this wondrous hunk of cheddar. Wisconsinites/Cheeseheads were able to walk around the fairgrounds holding their heads up high.

In fact, this pride went undiminished when the fair closed its gates in October 1965. “The World’s Largest Cheese” was purchased by the Borden Company and returned home where it was eventually consumed by the members of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association during it’s annual meeting held in Eau Claire. But the story does not end there. A non-perishable replica of the “The World’s Largest Cheese” was constructed for display in the original “Cheesemobile” and both found a new home in 1967 in Neillsville, Wisconsin, the home of Chatty Belle, the “World’s Largest Talking Cow” (as well as Bullet, the world’s largest mute calf, until it was destroyed by vandals and removed). Well, of course this makes sense. You pay your quarter to listen to Chatty Belle tell you all about the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and then you go next door to see the “World’s Biggest Cheese” (kind of). The Wisconsin State Pavilion was also moved to Neillsville where it became the broadcasting station for WCCN (Wisconsin Cheese Capital Neillsville ???). Naturally, I made subsequent pilgrimages to Neillsville over the years. Ah, the fond memories! Unfortunately, there is a sad ending to this tale. After almost forty years on public display, both the cheese replica and the original “Cheesemobile” were getting a little long in the tooth. The powers that be (Cheeseheads all, I imagine) decided that a dusty and decaying sponge and a rusted out old trailer no longer symbolized what is good and righteous about Wisconsin cheese. They had long served their purpose, but they no longer generated interest for tourists and limited funds could be better spent on the maintenance and upkeep of “Chatty Belle.” So, in August 2005, the “Cheesemobile” and its contents were hauled away. I will leave you there. Come back next week and I will share with you a few more confessions of a Cheesehead.

NEXT WEEK: Confessions of a Cheesehead - Part 2

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Entr'acte III - A Day on the Bay

Yesterday my son Ian and I shared an annual spring ritual here in Maryland. We arose before dawn at a friend’s house on Tilghman Island and by 6am we were on board the Nancy Ellen, a 46-foot custom-built charter boat, motoring out of Knapps Narrows and into the middle section of Chesapeake Bay. The rockfish (striped bass) season began back on April 18th and through May 15th is considered trophy season, when each angler is permitted one fish measuring 28 inches or more. The fishing reports were good and we would not be the only boat on the Bay in search of what may be the biggest fish we will ever catch in our lifetimes.

This was my third trip on the Nancy Ellen under the watchful eye of Captain Bill Fish (yes, that’s his real name) who has three decades of experience in Bay and open ocean commercial fishing. He has been based on Tilghman Island for the past 21 years and now specializes in light tackle on the Chesapeake Bay. Last May I fished just after the end of trophy season in mid-May. From then until the close of the season on December 15, anglers are permitted two fish measuring 18 to 28 inches, or one fish 18-28 inches and one in excess of 28 inches. On that trip we trolled artificial lures west of the shipping channel and closer to the Chesapeake Bay’s Western Shore, and I landed two very respectable fish measuring 19 and 23 inches respectively. In fact, all of my boat mates brought in their quota. We went again in early October hoping to repeat the success of that first trip. We fished live bait, and so after spending an hour or so jigging bloodworms for pinfish at the mouth of the Choptank River in order to fill our bait barrel, we moved into the Bay near the Sharp Island Light. That day we did not see a single rockfish, nor did any of the boats fishing near us. We did, however, tie into some schools of bluefish cruising the shoals, and each of us caught several tipping the scales at 6-10 pounds. A very successful day and pound for pound you can’t find a fish that fights harder than a snapper blue! But they were not rockfish and that is what we went to catch. So we were all very eager to return to the Bay this spring at the height of the trophy season in the hope of catching the big one. This time Ian went with me; his first sportfishing trip.

The word was that the rockfish had been spawning in the upper reaches of the Choptank River since mid-April, and with the water warming, especially after a recent spate of 90-degree weather, most of the spawning is over although it could last another week or two in some places. This meant that the post-spawn rocks would be moving quickly from the Choptank River and into the Bay. Tilghman Island, which is situated at the northern end of the mouth of the Choptank, is the ideal place to begin a trip to find these Chesapeake leviathans in the Middle and Lower Bay. Boats whose home ports are located north of the Bay Bridge connecting Annapolis with Kent Island, on the Eastern Shore . . . places like Rock Hall and Chestertown . . . have a lot farther to travel to get on the fish. Not so the Nancy Ellen.

As we passed the last channel marker exiting Knapps Narrows, Captain Fish turned south/southwest in the direction of the Sharp Island Light and opened up the engines as we navigated the False Channel while watching the depth-finder which would show us where the fish might be. Some of the guys snoozed or sat in the pilot house with the captain. Ian and I preferred standing aft while watching the sun begin to rise over Tilghman Island. The weather report had been promising the possibility of rain and choppy water, but it was turning into a rather pleasant day with a mixture of sun and some overcast. Captain Fish was in regular touch with other boats; everyone was trying to pin down the best place to fish without having to contend with the entire charter fleet operating all around you. Some were saying the shipping channel edges further north, near Bloody Point and Thomas Point, were good places to troll. Others said it was better on the west side of the shipping channel from Breezy Point south. Captain Fish split the difference and we selected a piece of water between buoys 82 and 83 in an area known as The Hook, on the east side of the shipping channel between Tilghman Island and Breezy Point, on the Western Shore.

Once we picked our spot, Captain Fish shoved the throttle into idle and we quickly deployed the two spreaders - a triple-winged device - that would allow us to troll fourteen lines at roughly ten-foot intervals behind the boat. Once the spreaders were in place, each of us busied ourselves feeding line from the heavy-duty boat rods. At the end of each line was a rig outfitted with a combination of white or chartreuse parachutes and bucktails dressed with 6-inch supple plastic lures known as “sassy shads.” These contraptions are guaranteed to attract the attention of big, hungry rockfish coming off the spring spawning run. With our lines in the water, Captain Fish throttled up and now it was a waiting game. We drew from a deck of playing cards to determine the order we would battle the fish once they began to hit our rigs. I pulled an “ace” and would have first crack. Ian drew a “six” and would fish fourth. Time for a beer and a sandwich!

The first fish hit shortly before 8am. I retrieved the rod and moved to the stern where I would spend the next several minutes slowly pumping the rod – up to pull the fish closer to the boat, and then down while cranking in the line. Occasionally the fish would move side to side, then dive deep only to come back up to the surface. The dorsal fin would break the surface and it felt like a good fish although I would not know for sure until it was in the boat. For the most part it felt like I was trying to pull a cinder block off the bottom of Chesapeake Bay! When I finally managed to get the fish up to the transom, one of my boat mates quickly netted and finessed it on board. “Holy S**t” was the only thing that came to mind! A very nice rockfish measuring 40 inches and weighing in at 28 pounds! Lots of high-fives and into the cooler it went. Captain Fish looked around the boat and announced to no one in particular - “I think we are going to hang around here for awhile.” No one argued with him. My arms were quivering and my muscles burned. Time for another sandwich and a beer.

With a couple more very respectable rocks in the cooler, it was Ian’s turn. He was excited. The biggest fish he ever caught was a two-pound bass on a plastic crayfish lure when he was a kid. He knew we were looking for bigger game this time around. Hell. The lures we were using were bigger than that first bass. Another fish hit and soon Ian was pumping his rod and slowly working his fish closer to the boat. It was fun to watch the determination on his face. Captain Fish was not impressed as he threw ice cubes from the cooler into the water. “I just hope the fish doesn’t go bad before you get it in the boat.” But Ian did land it . . . 37 inches and 24 pounds! Since I was the first draw, I had the honor of fishing for the “boat’s fish,” the one the captain would get to take home. She was a beauty. Not quite a big as my first one, but a little fatter - 36 inches and 28 pounds.

With a cooler containing seven rockfish with a composite weight of roughly 185 pounds, we pulled in our lines and stowed our rods before retrieving the two spreaders. It was time to head back to Knapps Narrows after a very successful outing. Once again a time to snooze, drink beer, and shoot the breeze with your fishing buddies. A time for a father and his son to share a common sense of accomplishing something special together; a memory for both of us to hold on to. I am quite certain we will have an opportunity to share another day on the Bay together. I sure hope so. It really doesn’t get much better than this!

NEXT WEEK: Confessions of a Cheesehead - Part 1