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

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