America’s Big Cheese

On January 1, 1802, then President of the United States Thomas Jefferson became the recipient of what I think is safe to say was probably the best gift ever received by someone who has held the office. After travel by sleigh, barge, sloop, and wagon, a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese arrived at the home of the president.

The cheese came from the good people of Cheshire, Massachusetts who, led by cheese enthusiast (I’m guessing) and Baptist minister John Leland, made the wheel from the milk of nine hundred (non-Federalist) cows in a gigantic press fashioned specifically for that purpose.

Monument to John Leland and his impressive cheese press in Cheshire, MA Makeitalready, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The gift, allegedly created entirely without slave labor, served as a show of support and appreciation for Jefferson’s commitment to the complete separation of church and state. What was a controversial issue among religious citizens, was embraced as freeing rather than limiting by Leland and his flock. So, they sent cheese. As one does.

The cheese wheel made quite a splash in the towns it passed through as it traveled five hundred miles over the course of three weeks. When at last Thomas Jefferson saw it, he graciously thanked the gift-givers for their thoughtfulness and accepted it, while also donating $200 to their church because he opposed the practice of presidents accepting gifts.

But what a gift it was! The cheese wheel was even carved with the words of his favorite motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” I mean, who doesn’t love a good motto carved into a giant wheel of cheese?

Thomas Jefferson, a man who could appreciate a good cheese-carved motto. By Rembrandt Peale – White House Historical Association, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=1604678

Not Thomas Jefferson. Despite his Federalist political opponents’ mockery of what they called the “mammoth cheese,” the president proudly had it served at his home for more than two years. Of course, rumor has it that by then, some of it may have gone a little south and ended up at the bottom of the Potomac.

Because as you probably know, cheese doesn’t tend to last forever and big cheeses have to be changed out once in a while.

Yesterday in the United States, we officially changed out the big cheese in the White House. There are a lot of hard-working, thoughtful, cheese-loving Americans who are pretty excited about that. And there are a lot of hard-working, thoughtful, cheese-loving Americans who are pretty nervous about that.

Even though this has been a particularly tumultuous political season, that’s pretty much how it’s always been and yet, transfer of power happens and the nation, for better or worse, rolls forward. Like a big wheel of cheese.

I mean, it wouldn’t be the worst gift. Image by jacqueline macou from Pixabay

No matter how any of us might feel about the inauguration of a particular new president, I think we can be proud of and celebrate what has become a grand tradition.

To be clear, I’m referring to the peaceful transition of power and not the presentation of giant cheese to the new president, which with the exception of one other occasion involving Andrew Jackson, never really caught on.

But I suppose that tradition could be resurrected. All we need is a well designed press and about nine hundred (non-Republican) cows.

Recipe for Spring: Start with 1.4 %Egg Yolk. Add Brain Freeze.

When he took on the office of the President of the United States in 1801, Thomas Jefferson brought with him his love for ice cream. Having most likely gotten his favorite ice cream recipe from his time serving as Minister to France, Jefferson often had the dessert served in what would, after a few years and a fire, come to be called the White House.

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Just a hint of a smile in this portrait…I bet he’s thinking about ice cream. Thomas Jefferson, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jefferson accomplished a lot in his political career, but contrary to rumors that suggest otherwise, he did not introduce ice cream to the United States. He did, however, probably contribute to the spread of its popularity, and his handwritten recipe is the oldest of its kind known in the US.

It calls for cream, of course, and sugar, vanilla, and plenty of egg yolks. I’m sure it was good, and if you want to try Jefferson’s recipe, you can allegedly do so while visiting Mount Rushmore where the National Park Service will be happy to sell you a cone.

Mountrushmore
When we visited Mount Rushmore a few year ago, we had no idea we could have eaten Thomas Jefferson’s way back ice cream. Guess we’ll have to visit again. Mount Rushmore, National Park Service, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

But according to the FDA, what you’ll be eating won’t technically be ice cream, which is defined as a frozen dessert containing at least 10% milkfat, a maximum of 100% overrun (the amount of mixed in air), and less than 1.4% egg product. You’ll have to call it French ice cream, or frozen custard instead.

It’s the eggs that make the difference, as most American ice cream recipes now forgo eggs all together in order to make production cheaper and handing easier. Custard is generally served fresh, and is stored at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream. And custard has a much lower overrun, making it denser (upside down frozen custard has been holding onto spoons since long before Dairy Queen’s Blizzards) and creamier and, often, much more delicious.

You can trust me on this because we St. Louisans know a thing or two about frozen custard, which outside of the return of baseball(and yes, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speak for all of us) is our favorite sign of spring.

Finally this week, spring has sprung here in Missouri. It happened officially this past Monday, but all the unofficial signs have begun arriving, too. The temperature reached into the 80s (it didn’t stay there, because Missouri), tornadoes have touched down, the dog is shedding EVERYWHERE, and the seasonal frozen custard stands are finally open.

This last one matters most to our family, and especially to my nine-year-old son. We pass one of his favorites every day on the way home from his school, and every day I have to decided whether I will stop to get an after school treat or whether I will explain to him why it’s not a custard day.

Obviously we stop much less often than we don’t, but he never fails to ask. Fortunately this stand, like many in the area, closes in late November and doesn’t open again until early to mid-March, so I get a few months off from this tedious conversation.

But now it’s open, and my son is relentless. What can I do? He’s a St. Louis kid. And he loves his frozen custard.

Ted Drewes
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. “It really is good, guys..and gals.” By The original uploader was Indrian at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The Midwest fell in love with this creamiest of frozen dairy desserts in the 1930s. The first machine designed for producing frozen custard was about ten or twelve years old at that point and had already taken the Jersey shore by storm, but no one loves the stuff as much as Midwesterners (the true cultural center of the nation).

The city that grabbed hold the most enthusiastically is Milwaukee. Since Wisconsin is made of dairy cows and ice, it was a natural fit. Today that city calls itself (unofficially) the frozen custard capital of the world and boasts that it contains more frozen custard stands per capita than any other city. Good for them.

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Our favorite local treat is Fritz’s Frozen Custard, a St. Louis tradition since 1983.

I mean no disrespect to my Milwaukee friends when I say this, but we have an arch, and a better baseball team, and Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, named by celebrity chef Bobby Flay as the best dessert he’s ever eaten. Ted Drewes has been a part of St. Louis since 1931, and as they say in their extremely clever catchphrase, “It really is good guys…and gals.”

My son and I don’t drive past a Ted Drewes every day on our way home from school, but just because our stand is less famous, doesn’t mean it’s any less beloved. And most importantly, it’s now open for the season.

We’ve already made our first stop for rich, creamy, frozen dairy deliciousness complete with more than 1.4% egg yolk, consumed so enthusiastically that my son gave himself his first brain freeze of the spring. I think Thomas Jefferson (coincidentally my favorite historical president, only partially because of his love for frozen custard) would be proud.