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11 Things You Might Not Know About Cheese

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Happy National Cheese Lover’s Day! Whether your thing is cream cheese, fancy cheese, spray cheese or night cheese, when it comes to this dairy product, there’s a whole lot to love. Here are 11 things you might not have contemplated about cheese—from royal-wedding cheese to the stinkiest cheese to couch-cushion cheese to the ultimate macaroni and cheese.

1. QUEEN VICTORIA RECEIVED A BEHEMOTH CHEESE AS A WEDDING PRESENT

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During the celebration of her wedding to her first cousin Prince Albert in 1840, Queen Victoria received the gift of a 1250-pound, 9-foot-diameter cheddar. It was produced by a cooperative of cheesemakers from two villages, according to Steven W. Jenkins in Cheese Primer. “Perhaps baffled by how to serve it, she sent the cheese off on a tour of England,” Jenkins writes. “When attempts were made to return it to her, she refused to take it back.”

2. ANDREW JACKSON GAVE NEW MEANING TO THE TERM “BIG CHEESE”

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Fans of The West Wing might know a thing or two about this one. In 1835, a farmer in New York honored Andrew Jackson with a 1400-pound hulking hunk of cheddar cheese. Not knowing what to do with the mammoth cheddar, Jackson left it in the White House lobby to age for two years until he decided to throw his last public reception on George Washington’s birthday. “Everyone from Supreme Court justices to stable boys jammed the East Room to wish him well—and eat cheese,” writes Albert Marrin in Old Hickory: Andrew Jackson and the American People. “Oh, what a glorious day for cheese! Carpets grew slippery with cheese. Pockets filled with wedges of cheese. ‘All you heard was cheese; all you smelled was cheese',” a guest reported.”

3. THERE IS A SOMEWHAT OFFICIAL “WORLD’S STINKIEST CHEESE”

Speaking of the smell of cheese, in 2004 researchers at Cranfield University in England used an “electronic nose,” along with a group of 19 human sniffers, to analyze cheese odors. A soft cheese from northern France called Vieux Boulogne was determined to be the most pungent. In fact, it even beat out Epoisses de Bourgogne, a cheese so stinky that it has apparently been banned from public transportation throughout France.

The Guardian had the Vieux Boulogne couriered to its offices, and reporter Patrick Barkham alleged that the cheese had “an aroma of six-week-old earwax.” He also wrote, “From a safe distance of 50 metres, the cheese emitted a pleasant eau de farmyard, replete with dung and Barbour jackets.”

4. THE WISCONSIN “CHEESEHEAD” BEGAN WITH A BURNT COUCH CUSHION

While France is known for its elegant (and sometimes nostril-assaulting) cheeses, our very own Wisconsin holds its own in the cheese department. The No. 1 producer of cheese in the United States, the state license plate boasts “America’s Dairyland” and state legislators even honored Lactococcus lactis, the bacterium used to make Colby, cheddar, and Monterey Jack, as Wisconsin’s official microbe. But not only is Wisconsin home to a multitude of cheese producers, it just might be the official HQ of cheese lovers worldwide. After all, nothing but true, deep, utterly mad love would possess a person to wear a wedge of cheese as a hat.

The idea for the foam Cheesehead, now worn proudly by Wisconsinites at Green Bay Packers games, came to Milwaukee native Ralph Bruno nearly 27 years ago on a whim. Bruno told the Los Angeles Times that he was reupholstering his mother’s couch when he discovered he had a leftover cushion. He randomly began burning holes into the foam rubber until his mother shooed him outdoors because of the stench. Out in the yard, Bruno painted the cushion yellow and affixed it to his head. Then he wore it to a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers. It caught on throughout the world of Wisconsin sports.

5. CHEESE BRINE IS AN ANTIDOTE FOR MILWAUKEE’S ICY ROADS

If you thought nothing could top the foam Cheesehead in Wisconsinites’ dedication to all things cheese, think again. Last month, Milwaukee introduced a first-time program to repurpose cheese brine to keep its roads from freezing. Because rock salt is expensive, the brine was mixed with the salt to make it stretch further. The natural salts in the brine also help it to break down the ice and the snow.

6. THE HOLES IN SWISS CHEESE ARE NOT CAUSED BY NIBBLING MICE

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The holes in Swiss cheese, oddly called “eyes,” are caused by carbon dioxide gas bubbles that are produced by bacteria during fermentation, according to Don Vorhees in Why Do Donuts Have Holes? Fascinating Facts About What We Eat and Drink. The longer the cheese ferments, the larger the holes grow. By adjusting the various bacterial growth conditions like temperature, acidity, and the length of the curing time, a cheesemaker can control the size of the holes.

7. THERE’S A VELVEETA SHORTAGE AND IT’S “DIP SEASON”

Kraft confirmed to NBC News earlier this month that the memos the food company released over the past few months regarding limited supplies of Velveeta until as late as February 23 were indeed true. The cheese-loaf shortage is apparently due to Kraft moving Velveeta’s production lines from a plant in Minnesota to another plant in Illinois. “Those dates are well after the big game [the Super Bowl],” writes NBC’s Ben Popken. “During that time, and the playoffs leading up to it, the processed cheese product is a popular base for dips.”

NPR referred to the shortage as a possible “Cheesepocalypse.”

8. MOLDY CHEESE: WHEN IN DOUBT, TOSS IT OUT

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It’s well known that mold on cheese isn’t always something to worry about and sometimes it’s even to be enjoyed, but what about those times when a cheese should be thrown away? According to registered dietician Katherine Zeratsky on the Mayo Clinic’s website, soft cheeses like cream cheese, ricotta cheese and cottage cheese that have grown mold should be discarded. So should any type of cheese that’s crumbled, sliced, or shredded.

Hard and semisoft cheeses like Colby, cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss aren’t easily penetrated by mold, however, so you can cut away the moldy part and eat the rest. And of course cheeses like Camembert and Brie (and Gorgonzola—yum!), which mold is actually used to make, are completely safe to eat.

“If you’re not sure what type of cheese you have or what to do if it grows mold, the safe course is to discard it,” Zeratsky says.

9. THE VIRGIN MARY GRILLED CHEESE WAS SURPRISINGLY MOLD FREE

Back in 2004, there was that crazy grilled cheese sandwich that supposedly bore the face of the Virgin Mary and sold for $28,000 on eBay. The seller, Diana Duyser of Hollywood, Fla., apparently claimed that the sandwich was completely mold free, even though it was stored in a not-completely-airtight container. Brendan Koerner of Slate decided to exhaustively analyze how the sandwich failed to sprout a single spore of mold. He supplies several hypotheses, including the idea that the trans fats in the margarine repelled the mold and that the bread was full of mold-prohibitive preservatives. But, surprisingly, he also believes it very well could have been the cheese.

“The cheese filling, aside from contributing to the sandwich’s fat content, also added calcium to the mix,” Koerner explains. “Calcium is a mild mold retardant, though less so than margarine. The acidic cheese may have also altered the pH level of the sandwich; bread mold grows best when the pH is more or less neutral.”

10. AMERICA’S MOST POPULAR CHEESE DISH IS MAC AND CHEESE

Photo courtesy of Chef John Folse & Company

The award for most popular cheese recipe in the United States goes to macaroni and cheese, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. The largest macaroni and cheese (above), according the Guinness World Records, weighed 2,469 pounds and was made by Cabot Creamery Cooperative in Fulton Square in New Orleans. The recipe called for 286 pounds of cheese, 575 pounds of cooked macaroni, 56 pounds of butter, 26 pounds of flour, 1100 pounds of milk, and 61 pounds of dry seasoning.

11. IT’S POSSIBLE TO BE A PROFESSIONAL CHEESE SCULPTOR

Sarah Kaufmann sculptures

There are three professional cheese sculptors in the United States, according to NPR. Sarah Kaufmann, also known as the “Cheese Lady,” is one of them. Kaufmann carves cheese for Super Bowl parties, weddings, corporate functions, state fairs, and dairy-association events. Her sculptures have ranged from a 120-pound Mickey Mouse to a 300-pound gorilla to various TV personalities (Jay Leno, Matt Lauer, Marc Summers) to a six-foot long model of the USS Reagan aircraft carrier. “It’s much more delightful than working with wood or stone,” Kaufmann told NPR. “You can snack while you work.”

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
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If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
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If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
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While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
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Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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