On January 29th, the White House is holding "Big Block of Cheese Day." Inspired by Andrew Jackson (and Aaron Sorkin), "dozens of White House officials will take to social media for a day long 'open house' to answers questions from everyday Americans in real-time." Here's the story of Jackson's big cheese.
There’s a great scene in The West Wing's episode “The Crackpots and These Women” in which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) tries to invigorate his exasperated team with a story about how Andrew Jackson kept a two-ton block of cheese in the foyer of the White House. According to Leo’s story, Jackson left the cheese there as a populist symbol; anyone who was hungry could pop in to the White House for a quick bite to eat.
While the notion of Jackson operating a free federal snack bar is appealing, the story told by Leo isn’t totally accurate. However, it’s not all that far from the truth. Andrew Jackson did own a monstrous block of cheese.
This is its story.
How did Andrew Jackson end up owning a big block of cheese?
The people loved Jackson. Jackson loved cheese. What better way to celebrate Jacksonian democracy than by sending Old Hickory himself an enormous wheel of cheese? Dairy farmer Colonel Thomas S. Meacham of Sandy Creek, NY, hit on this notion in 1835, and he had the know-how to craft a titanic cheddar. The fruit of Meacham’s labor was a wheel that was four feet in diameter and two feet thick, weighed nearly 1400 pounds, and was wrapped in a giant belt that bore patriotic inscriptions like, “The Union, it must be Preserved.”
This cheese was actually the crown jewel of a larger collection of ten cheeses that appeared at an 1835 patriotic celebration in Oswego, NY. After the locals all got a good look at the cheese and felt themselves well up with national pride, the wheel was loaded onto a schooner and set sail for its new home on Pennsylvania Avenue. Meacham sent off two other 750-pound wheels in the same shipment, one to Vice President Martin Van Buren and one to New York Governor William L. Marcy.
At some point, we’ve all received a thoughtful, touching, impractical gift and wondered, “What the hell am I going to do with this?” Jackson apparently had the same reaction when the cheese finally arrived at the White House. According to 19th-century biographer James Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson, the old general gave giant chunks of the cheese to his friends, but he was still left with an absurdly outsized block. Jackson could conquer the Bank of the United States, but he was helpless against such a massive wheel of cheese.
By 1837 Jackson’s second term was winding down, and he wasn’t about to haul a two-year-old mountain of cheese with him when he left office. So he decided to make the famed fromage a featured player at his last public reception at the White House. It was an astute move; there’s nothing people love more than free food. The reception’s 10,000 visitors attacked the wheel of cheese with such fervor that the entire thing was gone within two hours.
The reception took care of the cheese-disposal problem, but the cheddar certainly wasn’t forgotten. There are certain downsides to sending a big honking block of cheese to a warm climate like Washington and having it sit around for a couple of years. Namely, the cheese starts to get a bit fragrant, and a block that massive can give off some serious cheese-stink. Washingtonians could allegedly smell the cheese, which one dubbed “an evil-smelling horror,” for several blocks around the White House before the big party.
Of course, if a cheese has sat in a room long enough, its aroma can permeate into the fixtures. Jackson’s successor, Van Buren, apparently found this out the hard way. The Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Volume 13 from 1912 reprinted a letter written by former Senator John Davis’ wife, Eliza, in 1838. Mrs. Davis wrote:
The White House has been put in order by its present occupant, and is vastly improved – (Van Buren) says he had a hard task to get rid of the smell of cheese, and in the room where it was cut, he had to air the carpet for many days; to take away the curtains and to paint and white-wash before he could get the victory over it. He has another cheese like that which General Jackson had cut, and says he knows not what to do with it. What a foolish thing for a man to have made such a present to him or anyone else.
While Jackson’s reception cleared the White House of one smelly wheel of cheese, there’s some evidence to suggest that he left at least one other hulking block around as a housewarming gift for Van Buren. According to Gilson Willets’ 1908 book The Inside History of the White House, Van Buren eventually held a charity auction in 1839 to get rid of the last remnants of Jackson’s old dairy holdings, a 700-pound wheel of cheddar that also came from Meacham’s New York farm.
In that West Wing episode, a young Nick Offerman ("Ron Swanson") played a man lobbying the White House to build a $900 million wolves-only roadway. Work that into conversation at your next cheese party.
This post originally appeared in 2011.