Episode 12: Thomas Jefferson & The Mammoth Cheese of Cheshire
It’s that time of gruyère: it’s the Feast’s election episode! And we’re dedicating a whole show to some great White House food traditions. What do you get the President that has everything? A giant cheese, of course! Not just for fans of “The West Wing” anymore, we’re looking into the weird and wacky world of White House cheeses, going back to one of the founding fathers himself, Thomas Jefferson. Find out how a 1200-pound cheese ended up on the president’s doorstep one cold January morning in 1802. Learn what Jefferson did with all that cheese, and how a White House room earned its name from a dairy product. All this and all the cheese puns you can handle on this week’s episode of The Feast.
Written & Produced by Laura Carlson
Technical Direction by Mike Portt
Cheshire's Mammoth Cheese
University of Missouri scholar Jeffrey L. Pasley has done some great work on the history of Cheshire's Mammoth Cheese, including making a pilgrimage to the surviving monument to John Leland and the Cheese in the town of Cheshire today (although it's suffered a bit over the years).
Find his article, "The Cheese and the Words: Popular Political Culture & Participatory Democracy in the Early American Republic" in: Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic, available on Amazon or any local bookseller.
(Really Bad) Cheese Poetry
Jefferson found himself the butt of numerous jokes after being presented with his mammoth cheese. Anti-Jeffersonians & Federalists often took to using the mammoth cheese as an indicator of Jefferson's poor judgment and failures as a president. Literary magazines even took up the call; Philadelphia's "Port Folio" in March of 1802 actually published an entire volume dedicated entirely to poetry about Jefferson's cheese. This particularly awful example imagined Jefferson holding the cheese up as a mirror of his own faults as a president.
Reflections of Mr. Jefferson Over the Mammoth Cheese
When org'd by love, this ponderous gift you sent,
That on this heart you struck a sick'ning blow,
And gave a thousand damning feelings vent.
In this great cheese I see myself pourtray'd,
My life and fortunes in this useless mass,
I curse the hands, by which the thing was made,
To them a cheese, to me a looking-glass.
Once I was pure...Alas! that happy hour,
E'en as the milk, from which this monster came,
Till turn'd, by philosophic rennet, sour,
I barter'd virtue for an empty name.
Then press'd by doctrines from the Gallic school,
A harden'd mass of nameless stuff I stood,
Where crude confusion mingles without rule,
And countless seeds of foul corruption bud.
E'en the round form this work of art displays,
Marks the uncertain, endless path I tread,
Where truth is lost in falsehood's dreary maze,
And vice in circles whirls the giddy head.
Delusive view! where light is cast aside,
And principles surrender'd for mere words,
Ah me! how lost to jsut and noble pride,
I am indeed become a man of curds.
Like to this cheese, my outside, smooth and dsound,
Presents an aspect kind and lasting too;
When nought but rotteness within is found,
And all my seeming rests on nothing true.
Fair to the view, I catch admiring eyes,
The nation wonders, and the world applaud,
When spread beyond my just and nat'ral size,
I seem to them an earthly demigod.
But midst this shew of greatness and of ease,
Ten thousand vermin gnaw this wretched heart,
Just as they feed upon this mammoth cheese,
And I and they can never, never part.
Go, hated Menor, blast no more my sight,
I would forget myself, and heaven defy,
Inur'd to darkness, I detest the light,
Would be a suicide, but dare not die.
Other Presidential Cheeses in History
Fans of the West Wing might be more familiar with another giant cheese, gifted to Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. Jackson's cheese may have been bigger (1400-pounds to Jefferson's 1200-pound monster), but Jefferson's will always be the first. Ever since the West Wing brought back this cheesy White House tradition in the 1990s, it's been popping up all over. Since 2014, the Obama Administration has held a virtual "Block of Cheese Day" each January when folks had the chance to chat with various members of the government.
If you want to learn more about Jackson's cheese ordeal, take a look at these great stories on the history of presidential cheese by MentalFloss.com and The Atlantic.
More Great Food Traditions in Early America
There's lots more to the history of presidential foods than just cheese! Check out these other bakers and historians who are showcasing some other long-lost bits of America's political food history!
Not sure whether to vote on Election Day? Would a cake tempt you to the voting booths? The folks behind the Owl Bakery at Asheville, N.C., have uncovered the great history behind US Election cakes, where local bakers would tempt out prospective voters with promises of delicious homemade sweets. Check out their website for some suggestions on how to make your own this Election Day at www.owlbakery.com.
The Revolution of 1800
aka "and you thought the 2016 Election was tough..."
Forget the polls and the pundits of 2016, the election of 1800 almost tore the United States apart. When President John Adams decided to run for a second term, it was his own vice-president, Thomas Jefferson who ran against him. Not only that, when election results came out in favor of the Democratic-Republican party (the party of Jefferson), the country still couldn't figure out who was going to become the next president. At the time, two Democratic-Republicans were in the running: Thomas Jefferson & Aaron Burr. It took so long for the electoral college (and you thought it didn't do anything!) to award the presidency to Jefferson, he was only inaugurated in March of 1801- almost six month after the election had taken place!
Check out these great books about this heated election & how it earned Jefferson the Mammoth Cheese of Cheshire:
Thomas Jefferson & Religion in Early America
The road to a "separation between church and state" was a long one in late 18th and early 19th century America. Although Freedom of Religion was guaranteed by the US Bill of Rights, whether religion should have any role in American government was one much more difficult to determine. Jefferson was an advocate of the removal of religious affairs from the public sphere & often fought to remove any hint of the government's preferential treatment to one religion versus another. Even today, there is no formal legislation separating church and state, but its long-established tradition in the US is often dated to a particular letter Thomas Jefferson sent to a community of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, believed to be among the first time a formal separation between the two was suggested. Ironically, the letter is dated to January 1st, 1802- the very day John Leland and the Cheshire villagers presented the Mammoth Cheese to President Jefferson at the White House. Jefferson's thoughts on the church and state can be seen in an excerpt from the letter:
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;' thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State."
A History of Black Chefs in the White House
Culinary historian and self-proclaimed soul food scholar, Adrian E. Miller, is uncovering the great and important stories of black chefs at the White House, from the Revolutionary War to modern day. His book, The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, comes out in February 2017, and is sure to be a fantastic glimpse into the forgotten stories of folks who shaped the White House.
Edison Promenade Band, "Castle House Rag" (Castle House Rag by Edison Promenade Band is licensed under a Public Domain / Sound Recording Common Law Protection License)
Unheard Music Concepts, "The Man Who Wanted Too Much" (The Man Who Wanted Too Much by Unheard Music Concepts is licensed under a Attribution License)
Chris Zabriskie, "The Temperature of the Air on the Bow of the Kaleetan" (The Temperature of the Air on the Bow of the Kaleetan by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under a Attribution License)