I ran across Pratie’s Place through random surfing yesterday. It reminded me of something I’d forgotten about: the gift of cheese. More specifically, the gift of a Mammoth Cheese to Thomas Jefferson on New Year’s Day 1802.
The cheese had been en route for more than a month by the time a Baptist preacher, John Leland, finally got it to the White House from Cheshire Massachusetts. It wore a sign saying: "The Greatest Cheese in America for the Greatest Man in America!"
The previous year, Leland had preached from his pulpit the idea of making a giant cheese to celebrate Jefferson's election. The congregation was enthusiastic and plans were made.
But this wasn’t a national cheese. This was a cheese of a partisan nature.
On July 20 1801 the "Ladies of Cheshire," dressed to the nines, assembled at a big cheese bee with pails of curds from "900 cows at one milking." These had all, by the way, been Republican cows - the milk of Federalist cows was "scrupulously excluded."
Gore Vidal once commented that there were two Jeffersons. Jefferson 1 was elected in 1800 with the idea that central government shouldn’t consist of much more than a means to repair roads and deliver the post. Jefferson 2 bought Louisiana and set America on the course of manifest destiny. Could the turning point between Jeffersons 1 and 2 be located in the moment when he stood on the White House steps and received the mammoth cheese “with open arms”? The Federalists sought to bind government with limits they saw as coterminous with the fundamentals of human character. But never mind such crabbed phiolosphising. We've made a huge cheese! Anything is possible! Is this why the United States is in Iraq?
Could be. Consider, by contrast, China. China has historically been Cheese-less. Not only that, there's a distinct cultural aversion to dairy products in general (Seriously. if you ever have to host a reception for visitors from the People's Republic, rule number one is: no dairy products). Older Chinese in particular sometimes complain that Westerners "smell of milk". (Inter alia, this is why the expansion of Starbucks into China is something of a cultural sea change. But that's another story).Could this be something to do with the brooding, static, contemplative weight of Chinese political culture compared with the boundless optimism of cheese-mongering Americans? Who knows? Anyway, back to the plot:
The Mammoth Cheese was a subject of mockery from Jefferson’s opponents, equivalent to the carping about America’s noble mission in the Middle east you hear today. But it caught on nonetheless. America rejected this effete cynical sneering. It chose optimism. It chose cheese. Historian Jeff Pasley is cited as follows:
Giant foodstuffs and fossils seemed to speak some democratic, patriotic idiom that the Federalists did not understand
This is somehow Whitmanesque:
Always the free range and diversity! always the continent of
And cheese! But decay set in, as it inevitably does.
More than two years later a "pungent remnant" of the cheese was still being prominently displayed at the White House and fragments were being served on ceremonial occasions, although "very far from good."
The very last decayed and maggotty chunks were eventually dumped into the Potomac.
You can see the law of history at work. A giant cheese forged in the bright morning of democratic optimism becomes bloated and rancid and is finally swept away in the crepuscular dusk. Yes, there’s a book in this. And it’s a good deal less batty than anything Victor Davis Hanson writes about Europe.