The snack that took over the White House
The story of President Andrew Jackson's 1,400-pound block of cheese
Hello, Snackers. We’re off to the USA of the 1830s today for some extreme dairy and overwhelming smells.
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Andrew Jackson and the Enormous Cheese
This was supposed to be a post about the history of fancy cheese balls, but then I found a passing mention of a 1,400-pound block of cheddar made in 1835 for President Andrew Jackson, who displayed it inside the White House and invited the public to come and slice off chunks for snacking, leading crowds of Congressmen and ordinary citizens to descend on the president’s residence, despite an overwhelming stench, a chaotic scene that gave one writer* an entire column’s worth of gonzo-journalism fodder.
You can see why I changed course.
* * *
The cheese was not some political power move or campaign tie-in—it was a marketing stunt dreamed up by one Colonel Thomas S. Meacham, a resident of Sandy Creek, New York. He had no particular affinity for President Jackson (quick reminder that Jackson was “a slaver, ethnic cleanser, and tyrant” and all-around awful guy) but he did happen to own one of the largest dairies in the United States, which would soon cover one thousand acres. The economy of upstate New York was flourishing, thanks in large part to the Erie Canal, which had opened in 1825, and Meacham wanted to bring more attention to the region. Giant cheese seemed like the perfect whey to generate headlines. (Let me have this one pun, okay?)
As it happens, this was neither Meacham’s initial foray into the mega-cheddar game nor the first chonky cheese gifted to a president. In fact, the colonel was already locally famous for his huge wheels, including a 700-pounder donated to the City of Rochester on July 1, 1835, and he was surely aware of the cheese sent by a Baptist congregation in Cheshire, Massachusetts to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801. (According to historians at Monticello, “a Republican newspaper in Rhode Island reported that the cheese utilized the milk of 900 cows, was formed in a cider press that measured six feet in diameter, and had engraved on it the motto, ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.’”)
But this time around, Meacham had grander ideas, aiming for an even larger cheese for the president—four feet in diameter and two feet tall—and, just to maximize the attention, five more big cheeses, each weighing between 700 and 850 pounds, for other political luminaries, including one to Vice President Martin Van Buren, New York Governor William L. Marcy, and Daniel Webster, according to The Utica Democrat. Meacham began work in September 1835, using four days worth of milk from 150 cows and a giant cheese press. Around the edge, the finished product was decorated with what Meacham called “a National Belt … presenting a fine bust of the President, surrounded by a chain of twenty-four links, representing the twenty-four States united and linked together.”
There’s a historical marker in Sandy Creek today commemorating the “Big Cheese” and the local history center’s website has a long remembrance, which includes a description of the massive snack-to-be heading out on its journey to the capital, starting in the canals that the cheesemaker was so eager to celebrate:
With a flare for the dramatic, [Meacham] selected a large wagon which he had brightly painted and selected a team of forty-eight gray horses. The local residents joined the procession the day it started on its eventful journey. The procession reached Port Ontario by way of Pulaski and on November 15, 1835 it was loaded on a sailing vessel. As the Colonel stood on deck, a band played and cannons were fired. The trip to Washington began by way of Oswego, Syracuse, Albany and New York and the enthusiasm did not wane along the route.
The route included extended stops to exhibit his mammoth masterpiece for crowds in cities along the way. Here’s a handy map of from Colonel Meacham’s Giant Cheese, a kids’ book published in 1973, which features 73 pages of somewhat questionable history and rollicking dialogue (sample line: “I’m going to take him a present! The goldarndest, humdinginest present you ever did see!”).
Meacham’s cheese arrived at the White House on New Year’s Day, 1836. President Jackson immediately wrote a thank-you note:
I beg you, sir, to assure those who have united with you in the preparation of these presents, in honor of the Congress of the United States and myself, that they are truly gratifying as an evidence of the prosperity of our hardy yeomanry in the State of New York, who are engaged in the labor of the dairy.
Jackson understood the enormous cheddar in the same terms that Meacham had hoped: as an example of the rising might of American agriculture and industry and, by extension, the growing power of United States as a country. It was swaggering nationalism in edible form.
* * *
A good cheddar has to age, and despite the long journey, Meacham’s 1,400-pound wheel wasn’t ready for consumption when it reached the White House. (Alternatively, Jackson and his colleagues weren’t sure what to do with the damn thing or they kind liked having it around as a landmark: “Welcome, Prime Minister. The President is waiting for you—please follow me this way, past the Cheddar Roundabout.”) So there it sat, in the White House Entrance Hall, for more than a year, supposedly untouched, although you know someone was sneaking some bites now and then.
On February 22, 1837, as his presidency was weeks from its end, Jackson announced that the cheese was was finally ready for consumption, and invited the public—anyone at all—to come and help themselves to a piece. It was George Washington’s birthday, and this is how Washington, the city, chose to celebrate. People got into it, rushing over to grab a bite (there’s no record of anyone showing up with a loaf of bread and a flask of wine, but I like to imagine someone had the foresight to arrive with the appropriate provisions).
Here's one reporter's dispatch [see note at bottom of post] which I’ve greatly condensed:
The President’s house was thrown open. The multitude swarmed in. The Senate of the United States adjourned. The Secretaries of the various Departments turned out. Representatives in squadrons left the capitol—and all for the purpose of eating cheese. Yes, all for the purpose of eating cheese! Mine ye, I don’t laugh at it. Who has a better right to eat cheese than we? It is all the spoils we can get, and as others nibble at the Treasury, why on earth should not we the people nibble at the big cheese. Mr. Van Buren was there to eat cheese. Mr. Webster was there to eat cheese. Mr. Woodbury, with his most amiable Lady, was there to eat cheese. … The Court, the Fashion, the Beauty, of Washington were all eating cheese. Officers in Washington, Foreign Representatives in stars and garters, gay, joyous, dashing and gorgeous women, in all the pride, and panoply, and pomp of wealth, were there eating cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese was on everybody’s lip and in everybody’s mouth. All you heard was cheese. All you saw was cheese. All you smell was cheese. It was cheese, cheese, cheese. … The whole atmosphere for half a mile around was infected with cheese.
Undoubtedly you fancy that I exaggerate because you find it difficult to believe that a whole city, the metropolis of this vast Union, where crowd the might of the land, could all be engaged in eating cheese. Upon my word I tell you not half the tale. Georgetown, and Alexandria too poured forth their crowds on purpose to eat cheese.
[Many words omitted here. Twain was invested in making sure you understood: a LOT of people were there, eating cheese.]
I did not see this monstrous cheese at all. I met its fragments in many fists upon the avenue, as I ran down. I snuffed it in every breeze. I rushed with the crowd to get a bit, and with a look I would have been content, but alas, unhappy me! I got no cheese. I smashed my hat in vain … I pushed and wrestled, a and struggled in the crowd, and maddened at last with desperation, I mounted the very shoulders of he mass for cheese. But it was gone! All gone! … To the day of my death I shall remember, I got no cheese.
Twain’s description is oddly lacking in details necessary to picture the exact scene, so I’ll just add that this is what the space looked like, at least as of 1882:
So take that and add a giant block of cheese in the middle. The front room of the nation’s most famous residence, with its regal furnishings and finishes and Tiffany screen and encaustic tile floor … and a giant, funky-smelling round of cheese, four four feet in diameter by two feet tall, and a mob of people, dignitaries and randos alike, hacking away at the cheddar with pocket knives, joyfully chewing and slipping on the dairy-rich detritus underfoot.
There are very few things that I feel comfortable calling “distinctly American,” but this fits, combining as it does populism, ritual, absurdity, weaponry, and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The coda also feels apt: When Martin Van Buren took office as President a few weeks later, his administration had to get to work literally cleaning up his predecessor’s mess. Jackson’s attempt at populism had resulted in so much damage that Van Buren “had to rip out the curtains in the ‘cheese room’ and have the walls sanded and whitewashed” and banned food at public functions in the residence.
* * *
For modern Americans, the main legacies of Meacham’s cheese are listicles of odd gifts given to various presidents (see also: pandas, elephants, the Resolute Desk, and a live Bulgarian puppy that was immediately sent to the National Archives) and The West Wing’s “Big Block of Cheese Day” episode, which the Obama White House later emulated, in the sense that they had a day of social media outreach that they plugged with a YouTube video referencing the cheese.
Personally, I’d like to see the cheese come back for real. Put ornamented, multi-ton slabs of cheddar—and Swiss, provolone, Colby, mozzarella, and a rotating assortment of regional specialties like Prairie Breeze and Humboldt Fog—in government buildings across the land and let people to gather, converse, and gorge, creating community and civic engagement one bite at a time. Yeah, it’s weird and messy, but that’s all part of the appeal; it’s a weird and messy country. (Honestly, this is no more bizarre than pardoning turkeys.)
The United States has more than one billion pounds of cheese in reserve, just waiting to be put into action. If we’re not going to do meaningful things like implement universal health care or passing a meaningful Green New Deal or just extending the child tax credit payments … Could we at least get some free cheese?
Let’s make this happen.
*This post originally stated that the writer of that amazed dispatch was Mark Twain, which turns out to be a bit unlikely given that, as someone on Twitter pointed out, he was just one year old at the time. Looks like I misread one of my sources, which compared the column (which had no byline) to Twain's work.