BY DAVID CLARK
Ed note: This week we’re proud to have cheese expert and historian David Clark guest blogging with us. Today, he’s reporting on three huge cheeses gifted to America’s elected leaders, and the ruckuses they caused. Enjoy!
When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts, got very excited. As a community of Republican Baptists in a region dominated by Federalist Congregationalists, they had suffered their share of legal discrimination; and they believed that Jefferson would enforce a more decisive split between church and state, promoting the cause of religious liberty and bettering the lot of Cheshire.
So what did the good people of Cheshire do in the heat of enthusiasm? They crafted a 1235 pound cheese to bestow on the new president — a token of their trust and admiration. Town elder John Leland, an eccentric and energetic activist, spearheaded the effort. A massive press was constructed, and on a designated day in July it was ceremoniously filled with curd from all the milk of all the town’s cows. (All the cows except, of course, those tainted beasts owned by Federalists: Leland and company wanted to ensure the political purity of their gift.) At last the nascent cheese was dedicated, a hymn was sung; and after a period of pressing and curing, the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese was inscribed with a Jeffersonian inscription on it’s rind: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Soon after, it began a month-long journey to the White House.
The traveling cheese sparked plenty of commotion and ballyhoo on its way. Crowds gathered to watch the “Ultra-Democratic, Anti-Federalist Cheese of Cheshire” pass; newspapers roared with endorsements or ridicule. Then on New Year’s Day, 1802, Leland and his monster cheese finally reached Washington, where Jefferson graciously accepted the honor (although he later insisted on paying $200 for the gift).
In his speech for the occasion, the eloquent Founder said, “I shall cause this auspicious event to be placed upon the archives of the nation, while I shall ever esteem this occasion as one of the happiest in my history.” Then they cut the cheese with pomp and fanfare, and the snacking began. Reports vary, but it would appear that White House inhabitants were still munching on Cheshire cheese for anywhere from six months to three years.
The Mammoth of Cheshire was impressive, even intimidating, but not the last word on giant political cheeses. Before long an even larger cheese stormed Capital Hill. In 1835, a New York farmer decided to display his affection for President Andrew Jackson by sending a 1400 lb cheese to the White House.
Jackson’s behemoth cheese was also graced with a motto: “Our union, it must be preserved.” The cheese ripened for a couple of years while Old Hickory figured out what to do with it. Then, eleven days before his term ended, Jackson threw open his doors and invited anyone who could walk, ride, crawl, or slither into his abode for the cheese feast of the ages. He may not have thought through the consequences. Close to 10,000 guests appeared – attracted, perhaps, by an odor that filled the city. They stuffed cheese into mouths and pockets, stomped it into the carpet and upholstery, dropped it into sofas, and even hid some in flower pots. When faced with 1400 lbs of cheddar, the American People behaved like manic squirrels before a long winter.
Some sources claim that Jackson’s prize cheese was devoured within two hours, and only a tiny morsel was left for the president himself; others believe that Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, was stuck with 700 pounds of leftovers, which he managed to rid himself of two years later at a public auction for charity. Either way, Van Buren certainly inherited a stench: though the White House was turned upside down and thoroughly scrubbed, the redolent specter of Jackson’s cheese would haunt it well into the next president’s term.
Smaller cheeses can cause big fiascos, too. Mrs. Longley of Maine probably didn’t anticipate any trouble when she gifted a cheese weighing several hundred pounds to Governor John Fairfield, whom she greatly admired, in 1840. And Fairfield certainly meant well when he offered the cheese to his state’s House of Representatives, for a bit of refreshment and a break from the serious business of governing.
It’s up for debate whether Col. John Otis meant well when he presented a barrel of hard cider to go with Mrs. Longley’s cheese. There’s no doubt, however, that the “roguish wag” who secretly spiked Otis’ cider with brandy had anything but innocent intentions. He slipped in so much booze that Maine’s legislative branch quickly unwound. When the Speaker attempted to resume business, a crowd of (unwittingly) intoxicated lawmakers clamored for the floor. None would yield; those not on their feet egged the contenders on; and the Speaker became hoarse shouting into the bedlam. Nothing could be done. The combined force of cheese and spiked cider was too much for Republican government. So the Speaker moved to adjourn the House, only to be shouted down by a thunderous chorus of Nays. Helpless and discouraged, the Speaker sighed and washed his hands of it. He adjourned anyway, rose from his seat and left the mayhem to itself.
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