The (Real) Story of the White House and the Big Block of Cheese
American democracy's most famous dairy product, fact-checked.
Wednesday, as you may have heard, is the White House's second annual Big Block of Cheese Day. Inspired by a fictional character in a fictional presidential administration, the very real staff of the West Wing are answering citizen questions, online—because, as the White House puts it, cheesily, "we thought it'd be a gouda idea to brie-unite a certain cast of characters to help us bring back a tradition that dates back to the days of President Andrew Jackson."
The characters in question belong to the NBC drama The West Wing. In one of the show's most famous episodes, Leo McGarry, chief of staff to president Jed Bartlet, recalled an enormous piece of cheese that a former president, in the spirit of open access, shared with American citizens. "Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House, had a big block of cheese," McGarry tells his staff. He notes that the block of cheese was huge—"over two tons"—and that it was placed in the foyer of the executive mansion as part of Jackson's broader practice of "opening his doors to those who wished an audience." McGarry continued: "It is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention."
The West Wing on, um, brie-peat: Is this what our non-fictional democracy has come to? As Allison Janney, who played C.J. Cregg on the show, puts it in the event's promotional video: "You feta believe it."
You feta, indeed. The West Wing's Big Block of Cheese, as befits its creamy expanse, has become a cultural icon (and not just for the cameo performance it occasioned from a young, only-lightly-mustachioed Nick Offerman). It has beenmemorialized, in its way, in literary fiction. It has inspired a children’s picture book. It has inspired countless other acts of creative democracy, all in recognition of the fact that, if the American experiment is running as it should, every dayshould be Big Block of Cheese Day.
It turns out, however, that the Big Block of Cheese, this most American of American cheeses, is misunderstood—as a piece of history, as a piece of pop culture, as a piece of dairy. Jackson, who one historian notes "didn't think he should be guided by public opinion," offered the cheese to the public not so much in a spirit of open conversation as in one of desperation. Nor was he the first chief executive to receive an enormous cheese as a gesture of the relationship between the president and the people. The Big Block of Cheese was, more than anything else—perhaps just as it is today—a political tool, earnest and cynical in equal measure.
Here is the real story (or, if you wanted to be White House-ian about it, the Brie! True Washington Story) of the Big Block of Cheese. Which was not a block so much as a wheel. And which was not a singular dairy product so much as a series of them.
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First, the story of the Jacksonian BBOC of The West Wing lore. This iconic cheddar came courtesy of Colonel Thomas Meacham, a dairy farmer in Sandy Creek, New York. In 1835, to flaunt his cheese-making ingenuity, he created ten cheeses, which he revealed at a public celebration in Oswego. The biggest of these was four feet in diameter and two feet tall. It weighed nearly 1,400 pounds. Meacham dedicated it to Andrew Jackson.
He delivered it to him, too. The enormous wheel of cheese was shipped on a schooner bound for Washington, D.C., wearing a belt that, according to a dispatch from Utica’s newspaper, was “got up with much taste, presenting a fine bust of the President, surrounded by a chain of twenty-four States united and linked together.” (Meacham proceeded to send some of the lesser specimens in his collection, two 750-pound wheels of cheddar, to Vice President Martin Van Buren and New York Governor William Marcy.)
For the president, it seems, Meacham’s gift was a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand: all that cheese! But on the other: all that cheese. According to one Washingtonian, the thing was, besides being enormous, “an evil-smelling horror”—one whose aroma stretched for several blocks beyond the White House itself.
The president gave large pieces of the cheese to his friends; that generosity, however, barely left a dent in the 1,400-pounder. As Mental Floss summed it up, “Jackson could conquer the Bank of the United States, but he was helpless against such a massive wheel of cheese.”
The solution: crowdsource the eating of the cheese. Give the cheese to the people! Jackson, with his second term winding down, had one last public reception on the docket at the White House; at it, he displayed the cheese. Some 10,000 visitors came, armed with knives and appetites, if not Purell. They carved the cheese. They ate it. They saved some for later.
The cheese was gone within two hours.
Its stench, however, remained. According to a letter written by Senator John Davis’ wife, Eliza, in 1838,
The White House has been put in order by its present occupant, and is vastly improved–(Van Buren) says he had a hard task to get rid of the smell of cheese, and in the room where it was cut, he had to air the carpet for many days; to take away the curtains and to paint and white-wash before he could get the victory over it. He has another cheese like that which General Jackson had cut, and says he knows not what to do with it. What a foolish thing for a man to have made such a present to him or anyone else.
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Foolish thing, or brilliant thing? You could argue it both ways. There’s something the Sorkinian interpretation—Jackson, cheddar, democracy—doesn’t make clear, however. And this is that Jackson’s Big Block of Cheese was not, for better and probably for worse, the nation’s first Big Block of Cheese. That honor goes to a hunk of preserved cow’s milk that history has come to remember as the “Mammoth Cheese.” This ceremonial foodstuff, dating from the first years of the 19th century, was a wheel of cheddar four feet in diameter and 18 inches tall. It weighed 1,234 pounds. It was at the time, as the Baptist elder John Leland put it, "the greatest cheese ever put to press in the New World or Old."
It was Leland—who had campaigned for Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800, largely in support of the candidate’s stance on religious freedom—who was behind this innovative gift. The cheese was created by the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts—a city celebrated, just like its namesake county in England, for its cheese-making. (The cheese, the historian Jeffrey Pasley suggests, was in fact likely inspired by a British counterpart: an enormous cheese created to celebrate George III’s recovery from an illness.) It was created by combining the milk from every cow in town: according to one newspaper, some 900 cows. Processing such a massive foodstuff required the engineering of a makeshift cheese press—converted for the task from a six-foot-wide cider press, outfitted with a cheese-straining hoop—that could accommodate a cheese of its girth.
The cheese was not—as, really, no cheese ever is—a simple hunk of dairy. It was also a political gesture. The cheese was engraved with the decidedly Jeffersonian motto "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." It was intended, Pasley puts it, as a mark of the esteem "in which Jefferson was held by a small Berkshire County farming community that was monolithically Baptist in religion and Democratic Republican in politics." Leland, indeed, insisted that "no Federal cow"—by which he meant a cow owned by a Federalist farmer—be allowed to offer any milk to the endeavor, "lest it should leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savor."
Cheshire’s partisan dairy product soon became a kind of celebrity in papers both local and non-, the subject of reports and commentary alike. Federalist writers, in particular, took delight in mocking Cheshire’s gift to the president as the "Mammoth Cheese," so named for the mastodon bones that had just been unearthed in New York with aid from the Jefferson administration.
It was the first time “mammoth” was used as an adjective. And it ended up, like so many other political terms, backfiring against the people who coined it. People liked the idea of enormity that “mammoth” seemed to connote. Soon, bakers in Philadelphia were advertising "Mammoth Bread," and butchers in the same city were sending Jefferson a "Mammoth veal." As Pasley explains, "Giant foodstuffs and fossils seemed to communicate in some democratic, patriotic idiom that the Federalists did not understand."
The “Mammoth Cheese,” for its part, had originally been planned as a gift for the spring; the heft of the finished product, however, ended up requiring it to be transported in the winter. (Snow and ice, when traveled on by sled, help ease the frictions of transportation.) The 500-mile trip—by sleigh and wagon from Massachusetts to the Hudson River, by sloop to New York and then to Baltimore, and finally by wagon to Washington—took three weeks. Leland and his travel companion often stopped to preach along the way, creating a sensation (the famous cheese!) wherever they went. Leland, almost inevitably, became known as the "Mammoth Priest."
When he and his cheese finally made it to Washington, on December 29, 1801, the Mammoth Priest presented his gift to Jefferson with precisely the pomp you’d expect. And the White House reciprocated. Anticipating the arrival of the elder and his cheese, the entrance to the executive mansion was hung with sign: "THE GREATEST CHEESE IN AMERICA—FOR THE GREATEST MAN IN AMERICA." Jefferson himself, normally laconic at public celebrations, met Leland in the doorway of the presidential mansion. He was, witnesses recalled, "highly diverted" by the arrival of the cheese—so much so that, though he generally opposed such transactional customs of gift-giving, gave a $200 donation (more than 50 percent of the cheese’s market price) to Leland’s congregation to thank him for the effort.
And Jefferson used the cheese, just as everyone else did, as a political tool. When a group of Federalist congressmen visited Jefferson in the White House, intent on imposing formal rituals upon a president who had sought to reduce the ceremonies associated with the presidency, Jefferson invited them to see the cheese: to “go into the mammoth room,” as he put it, so that they could witness for themselves what one of them had previously called a “monument to human weakness and folly.”
Like Jackson’s cheese, Jefferson’s Mammoth Cheese was used in public celebrations—among them an Independence Day dinner in 1803. Unlike Jackson’s, however, the cheese remained at the White House. For more than two years. Though "no precise date can be given for the cheese's ultimate disposal,"the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia puts it, "it appears to have been present at the President's House the following New Year's Day, and was reported to still be there as late as March of 1804." Contemporary accounts describe the cheese, at that point, as "very far from being good."
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