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A Big Cheese for a Big Cheese
December 3, 2007 1:39 PM   Subscribe

The Mammoth Cheese of Cheshire was the most unusual gift ever given to a President of the United States. In the aftermath of the "Revolution of 1800", the eccentric Baptist preacher John Leland decided to celebrate the presidency of Thomas Jefferson by convincing the predominantly Baptist farmers of Cheshire, Massachusetts to create a giant 1,235-pound block of cheese as a monument to small-"r" republicanism and religious freedom.

The cheese eventually reached Thomas Jefferson on New Years Day in 1802, the same day that Jefferson wrote his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists about the wall of separation between church and state. The Federalist Party, which opposed Jefferson's funding of scientific research during the Lewis & Clark expedition, ridiculed the cheese as a "mammoth," a reference to the recent exhumation of a mammoth by the painter and naturalist, Charles Willson Peale. The derision of the Federalists backfired, however, as the delivery of the cheese coincided with a huge "mammoth craze" that popularized the word "mammoth" as an adjective describing anything enormous, including a mammoth loaf of bread gifted to Jefferson in 1804. An experimental dairy station in Perth, Ontario eventually made a bigger mammoth cheese, but Jefferson's mammoth cheese has inspired a novel, a children's book, a monument protected by funds from the Department of Homeland Security, and a subplot on The West Wing. Last but not least, check out this research paper, which places the Mammoth Cheese of Cheshire in the context of Jeffersonian participatory democracy.
posted by jonp72 (29 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Jeffrey Pasley--last link--is a very well respected historian of the early Republic.)

Fantastic post, thanks.
posted by nasreddin at 1:52 PM on December 3, 2007


Yes, but what kind of cheese?
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:53 PM on December 3, 2007


Big Block of Cheese Day! yay!
posted by lazaruslong at 1:54 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


1,235-pounds? It was a Munster.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:55 PM on December 3, 2007 [8 favorites]


Fantastic post. Thanks.

And, oh baby, do I want a print of that Peale painting!
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 1:55 PM on December 3, 2007


I love Big Block of Cheese Day.
posted by jquinby at 1:55 PM on December 3, 2007


So basically this whole separation of Church and State thing was to prevent this giant wheel of Baptist Cheese from stinking up Monticello?
posted by Gungho at 1:58 PM on December 3, 2007


January 2nd 1802 coincidentally marks "Fix the White House Plumbing Day."
posted by tkchrist at 2:00 PM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wow. A mammoth cheese, a mammoth loaf of bread. He's just a mammoth jug of wine shy of a picnic!
posted by Floydd at 2:01 PM on December 3, 2007


No one ever sends me mammoth anything. Then again I'm not the President.
posted by Mister_A at 2:03 PM on December 3, 2007


The one and only bit of fan fiction I've ever written was a West Wing Big Block of Cheese Day scriptfic, so this post made me smile.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:03 PM on December 3, 2007


He's just a mammoth jug of wine shy of a picnic!

Just make sure the Jefferson wines aren't counterfeits and bought by a billionaire.
posted by ericb at 2:08 PM on December 3, 2007


1,235-pounds? It was a Munster.

That joke really bleu.
posted by rouftop at 2:13 PM on December 3, 2007 [4 favorites]


The Ontario cheese was immortalized in verse.
posted by suckerpunch at 2:15 PM on December 3, 2007


Oh, I'm sorry. The previous ode was for the Mammoth Cheese of Ontario, 1889. The Mammoth Cheese of Ontario, 1893, was not merely immortalized, but, in fact, foretold.
posted by suckerpunch at 2:20 PM on December 3, 2007


Predictably, now I want cheese. And bread, and some porter.
posted by everichon at 2:43 PM on December 3, 2007


everichon : it's not that big, and it had no effect on participatory democracy, but you may find it a simplification.
posted by suckerpunch at 2:48 PM on December 3, 2007


*head explodes in a shower of shamrocks*
posted by everichon at 3:02 PM on December 3, 2007


That novel by Sheri Holman is actually pretty darn good.
posted by zzazazz at 3:37 PM on December 3, 2007


Well I suppose this finally puts the last nail in the coffin for you foolish "old Earthers". Not only were mammoths around in the 19th century, they were being milked for cheese right here in the United States. Extinct for 12,000 years. Pah!
posted by The Bellman at 3:57 PM on December 3, 2007


This is possibly the best post of 2007. Thank you.
posted by signalnine at 4:06 PM on December 3, 2007


Any truth to the rumor that the Clintons found the last of that cheese in the back of the White House fridge?

Seriously, an excellent post. As a former Berkshirite, I've visited the cheese monument and known this story for a long time, but you added multiple extra dimensions to it. Kudos.
posted by beagle at 4:09 PM on December 3, 2007


Big Block of Cheese Day is based on Andrew Jackson's 1,400 lb. block of cheese, not Jefferson's smaller 'mammoth' block. I'm having a lot of trouble coming up with a 'big cheese for the big cheese' joke I can stomach, so let's just take it as written, eh?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:37 PM on December 3, 2007


Hello everybody, I'm going off on a tangent...

After a few drinks, I have been known to ramble on incessantly about my belief that Martin Sheen should be obligated to play the President in all movies and TV shows, until he either retires from acting, or dies. Should he be unable to perform his duties, Bill Pullman should be sworn in to replace him.

I'm always disappointed when some town decides to make the worlds biggest hamburger, or the worlds biggest pancake, and it never looks appetizing or even edible.

A mammoth cheese,however, probably looks and eats like any other cheese, only bigger.
posted by billyfleetwood at 9:50 PM on December 3, 2007


"We have seen thee, Queen of Cheese".

Speaking as a Perthite (well, an Ottawan, but my parents are Perthites and the homestead is there), I feel it only appropriate to put in a word for our monster:

Unfortunately, the sign is long gone from the monument, and given its location down by the railroad tracks, now it just looks like a miniature oil tank.

Altogether now. (That first line here is rendered incorrectly. It should be as above.)
posted by Mike D at 6:03 AM on December 4, 2007


A mammoth cheese,however, probably looks and eats like any other cheese, only bigger.

This would only make sense if all cheeses looked and ate the same.
posted by biffa at 6:07 AM on December 4, 2007


Apologies to SuckerPunch -- I missed the fact that you got there first.
posted by Mike D at 6:24 AM on December 4, 2007


Ah to hell with it... even the original post got there first.

Memo to self: Coffee; THEN Metafilter; THEN post.

I'll be better soon.
posted by Mike D at 6:26 AM on December 4, 2007


Awesome post!
posted by Jofus at 10:04 AM on December 4, 2007


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