When someone is referred to as “The Big Cheese”, it’s usually an indication that they’re particularly important. One can argue an exception in the case of Captain Marvel (the one of the “Shazam!” fame), whose nickname was The Big Red Cheese, except that if a person were flying around with pretty much the full complement of Superman’s powers one could make the case they were particularly important.
But I digress.
The big cheese in this case associates to Andrew Jackson, who, as an American President was important. But the cheese… was a cheese. A giant cheese, in fact. A cheese so large that it had been toured around the country, with its maker showing off its immense size.
Andrew Jackson, however, was not yet famous for his racism and attacks on the native American population, nor for being the father of the modern Democrat party, nor for being a face on our money. He was, instead, famous for being a populist.
How much of a populist? The answer can be found at his inauguration, where afterward a traditional open house was held at the White House. Starting with Thomas Jefferson, Presidents had thrown open the doors of their new home and greeted those who had come to offer congratulations. With Jackson, however, the crowd was a little bit different than normal.
After Jackson’s swearing-in ceremony and address to Congress, the new president returned to the White House to meet and greet a flock of politicians, celebrities and citizens. Very shortly, the crowd swelled to more than 20,000, turning the usually dignified White House into a boisterous mob scene. Some guests stood on furniture in muddy shoes while others rummaged through rooms looking for the president–breaking dishes, crystal and grinding food into the carpet along the way. (White House staff reported the carpets smelled of cheese for months after the party.) In an attempt to draw partygoers out of the building, servants set up washtubs full of juice and whiskey on the White House lawn.History.com
Ah, there’s the cheese, right? Not so fast….
Jackson had followers. Many believed he was the greatest politician ever to grace the surface of America, and he was not inclined to disabuse them of that notion. Because of that, they wanted to ensure that he be seen as the best President ever, and that meant topping some prior achievements. Thomas Jefferson, for example, had received an immense block of cheese as one of his gifts. For Jackson, the cheese had to be bigger!
One of Jackson’s fans, Dairy farmer Colonel Thomas S. Meacham of Sandy Creek, NY, took up the cause, making a 1400 pound block of cheddar. He decorated it with patriotic slogans and set to touring it around the states, finally delivering it to President Jackson at the White House.
Jackson accepted it in good grace and afterward began slicing off large hunks as gifts for friends, but there’s only so much cheese most people want to eat. As his days in the Presidency wound down, Jackson decided he had to do something, lest he be stuck dragging a giant block of cheese back to his home. Recalling the event of his inauguration, he decided to hold a party… but this time, not a true open house. Just something for him and 10,000 of his closest friends.
“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. Even the scandal about the wife of the President’s Secretary of War was forgotten in the tumultuous jubilation of that great occasion.”Perley’s Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis
When the next President, Martin Van Buren, moved into the White House, the place still smelled like cheese. Days went by, and the place still smelled like cheese. With the party long over and the giant wheel consumed, the carpets and furniture and drapes cleaned, there seemed to be no reason for the lingering odor of cheddar permeating the place.
Subsequent investigation revealed the culprit: a second wheel, left in the basement, which had been delivered simultaneously with the first. This one was only about half the size, a mere 750 pounds, and addressed to the then-Vice President, Martin Van Buren.
Question of the night: What’s your favorite type of cheese?