The (Real) Story of the White House and the Big Block of Cheese

22 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

The (Real) Story of the White House and the Big Block of Cheese.

Wednesday, as you may have heard, is the White House’s second annual Big Block of Cheese Day. In 1837, President Andrew Jackson and his staff hosted an open house to discuss issues of the day over a giant block of cheddar cheese in the main foyer of the White House.Members of the administration are participating in the day-long social media campaign for the second year in a row, using the hashtag #AskTheWH to accept questions from voters around the country through various online platforms.

According to lore, the tradition dates back to Andrew Jackson’s administration in the 19th century, when the populist president opened the doors of the executive mansion to ordinary citizens. The Obama White House adapted the custom last year in an effort to encourage voters to ask White House officials questions about the president’s agenda for the coming year. President Obama suggested during his speech that individuals could barely survive with that level of income, and he has long supported efforts to expand health-care coverage. The event — which is online only — comes a day after President Obama’s State of the Union address and is part of the administration’s broader social media push to advertise the White House’s policy agenda.

Today at 2pm ET I’ll be taking your questions during #BigBlockOfCheeseDay – you feta be there! #AskTheWH pic.twitter.com/26b8LQeak8 — Tom Perez (@LaborSec) January 21, 2015 Participating agency heads include Secretary of State John Kerry, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Notably, the event does not include representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is still recovering from last year’s scandal over wait-time cover-ups. 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. Eventually, the cheese block started to stink, so the president offered it to the people during a public reception as his second term was winding down.

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. 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.

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. 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 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.

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. 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. 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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