Weird Old Presidential Gifts: Gigantic Blocks Of Cheese
It's a fundamental paradox of modern society that people love to give you free stuff when you're rich, and that goes double for when you're the leader of the free world. Gifts received by sitting presidents have ranged from exotic animals to Burberry coats, but for a minute, it was weirdly popular to give the President a gigantic block of cheese -- meaning that it happened twice, which is still two more times than would be considered normal.
The first was the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese, made by Baptists from the cheese-making town of Cheshire, Massachusetts, and presented to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 as thanks for his position on religious freedom. It was made from the milk of every cow in town, weighed 1,234 lbs., and was apparently inspired by a massive block of cheese celebrating George III, so this was, like, a thing. Making fun of the cheese became a whole Federalist meme, marking the first use of the word "mammoth" to describe something huge, to the point that Jefferson delighted in inviting Federalist congressmen to see the cheese, which he kept in its own room in the White House. It was served at parties for the next two years or so because lording privileges aside, what else are you gonna do with it?
Thirty years later, an even bigger block of cheese was gifted to Andrew Jackson for somewhat murkier reasons. Contemporary historians claim it came from Jackson's supporters, who believed "that every honor which Jefferson received should be paid to him," right down to cheeses of ridiculous size, except the dairy farmer who created the cheese wasn't even a Jackson fan. It's more likely that it was a matter of state pride in New York's newly prosperous agricultural industry. Whatever the case, it took Jackson an equally long time to get rid of the two-ton block of cheese, so he eventually just invited the whole town over for a cheese party.
According to legend, it was an affair full of lively discourse between the President and constituents. Still, it was near the end of Jackson's term, and he never actually cared much for the public's input anyway, and descriptions of the party indicate that attendees were a lot more focused on cheese than politics:
"For hours did a crowd of men, women and boys hack at the cheese, many taking large hunks of it away with them. When they commenced, the cheese weighed one thousand four hundred pounds, and only a small piece was saved for the President's use. The air was redolent with cheese, the carpet was slippery with cheese, and nothing else was talked about at Washington that day."
In fact, so much cheese had been ground into the carpet that the incoming President, Martin van Buren, was gifted with a house that smelled like cheese for months and subsequently banned food from White House receptions. He was kind of a party pooper. Still, Big Block of Cheese Day is so remembered as a day of discourse that the Obama administration held two symbolic cheese parties to answer questions from the public. They were virtual, so there was, of course, no actual cheese served, because if there's anything politicians love more than empty gestures, it's missing the point.
Top image: Alexander Maasch/Unsplash