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The King of Cheese: 3 French Cheeses Vying for the Crown

The French have been wary, at times, of human kings -- consider the rough way they treated Louis the Last (XVI) -- but they've never shied from crowning kings of cheese. Below are three French contenders for the cheese throne, and the prominent voices that have lobbied for each.

1. EPOISSES: The cheese that was once banned on public transportation

Epoisses is not as old or renowned as Roquefort (see below); but it can boast a legitimate claim to the crown, thanks in part to two distinguished fans: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the influential 18th century gastronome, and Napoleon Bonaparte, the late emperor-king of just about everything. It was Brillat-Savarin, philosopher-gourmand, who dubbed Epoisses the king of cheeses -- a declaration not to be dismissed, considering the seriousness with which he regarded cheese. ("A desert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who has lost an eye," he wrote, not quite in jest.)

Napoleon, on the other hand, wasn't quite as careful or as cultivated in his taste: "I eat quickly and masticate little," he admitted. Still, he was an awfully powerful man -- a potentate to match Caesar and Charlemagne -- so when he favored a food, that opinion mattered; and he favored Epoisses. As the last man proclaimed king over most of Europe -- a man who confessed he "could never see a throne without feeling the urge to sit on it" -- perhaps Napoleon knew a sovereign cheese when he tasted one.

If you have the chance to taste some ripe, runny Epoisses, you might be surprised by its powerful odor, which has proven offensive to many. There are even rumors that it was banned on public transportation in France. Napoleon had his peculiarities -- but how, you might ask, could a sophisticated connoisseur like Savarin love a cheese that smelled to heaven? Well, legend has it that his culinary aesthetic was so enlarged, so distinguished, that he would carry dead birds around in his pockets so he could savor the aroma. That is the kind of man we are dealing with. To each his own.

2. ROQUEFORT: The preferred cheese of genius

This pungent and striking blue ewe's milk cheese has a long history and a formidable reputation. In fact, Julius Caesar may have been the first big shot to praise Roquefort, which he tasted while conquering Gaul in the first century B.C. Although Julius wasn't a "king" per se ("I am Caesar, not King," he told his subjects), he did have a few other titles including dictator-for-life, consul-for-life, imperator, father of the fatherland, and God. We can only assume his opinion on cheeses mattered.

After Rome's fall, Charlemagne "rediscovered" Roquefort for the Middle Ages. Following a battle with the Saracens in 778, Charlemagne stopped for a snack in Rouergue (the region of south-central France from which Roquefort hails). An abbot served some cheese to the monarch, who started picking out the greenish-blue bits with his dagger, assuming the mold to be a corruption. Noticing this, the abbot advised Charlemagne that the blue bits were the best part; Charlemagne ate, enjoyed, and ordered a couple of wagon-loads of the cheese delivered to his home every year.

In 1411, French king Charles VI, a.k.a. Charles the Well-loved, a.k.a. Charles the Mad, legally ensured Roquefort's regional identity, restricting its aging to the Caves of Combalou -- where it was first ripened, and still is today. It's uncertain whether Charles was lucid or bonkers when this decision was made; but it doesn't matter. Since then Roquefort's been adored by all the glutton kings of France, especially the later kings Louis.

All of that said, love of Roquefort has not been restricted to royalty; even rebels, revolutionaries, and intellectuals have admired it. Enlightenment philosopher Diderot (who famously suggested that kings should be strangled with the entrails of priests) declared that Roquefort "is indisputably the finest cheese in Europe". Rough-edged American novelist Henry Miller (who famously wrote some lurid things about love-making), had similar thoughts, claiming of Roquefort, "To eat this cheese one must have genius." Whatever that means.

3. BRIE: The cheese worth losing your head over

The story goes that Charlemagne discovered Brie exactly as he discovered Roquefort (although four years earlier). This time he was staying at an abbey in the region of Meaux and was offered a soft, white-rinded cheese. The monks caught him picking off the rind, aiming for the creamy interior; so they told their king to eat the cheese whole, crust and all. He did, and he liked it enough to order a couple of batches delivered each year to his castle in Aachen.

Another royal fan of Brie was Louis the XVI, the guillotined one. He hampered his own escape from the revolutionaries by insisting that his entourage stop for long and luxurious meals. He clearly wasn't used to thinking practically. It's said that the ill-fated monarch was caught at last while relishing, very slowly, some good Brie cheese at a tavern in Vernnes. Perhaps it was worth the beheading: different people have different priorities.

Other cheeses have had their royal endorsements; but of all the contenders for the kingship of cheese, Brie is the only one to be formally crowned by a unanimous vote of European aristocrats. After the Napoleonic Wars, representatives from every European power gathered in Vienna to rearrange their devastated continent. Reacting against all the violence caused by the French Revolution, the Congress of Vienna restored "legitimate" monarchies throughout Europe. And while they were naming kings of nations, why not name a king of cheeses? France's statesman, Talleyrand, proposed a friendly contest of cheeses to pass the time (and assert some nationalistic pride); the others assented, and brought in their nations' finest. England's Stilton, Switzerland's Emmenthal, Holland's Edam, and Italy's Gorgonzola were each enjoyed, assessed, and discussed in turn. Talleyrand remained silent until his own messenger arrived, bearing Brie de Meaux. As one historian records, "The Brie rendered its cream to the knife. It was a feast, and no one further argued the point." Without further ado, the Congress of Vienna declared Brie the Cheese of Kings and the King of Cheeses. Then they got back to redrawing borders.

Cheese expert David Clark is guest blogging with us all week! Be sure to check out his previous posts: 'Big Political Cheeses and the Riots They Caused' and 'The Maggot Cheese of the Mediterranean.'

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
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Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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