In Which I Try Stirring Up A New England Cheese Controversy


So I had been reading Edwin Valentine Mitchell’s 1946 book It’s An Old New England Custom, which is about just what the title suggests, though it goes on with more words about the subject. Something it claims is an old New England custom, and I’m quoting the chapter title exactly here to make sure I get it right, “To Eat Cheese”. And I had to be careful because until I went back and picked it up I would have sworn the chapter title was “To Be Fond Of Cheese”, which is a marginally different thing, especially since the chapter about customary fondness is actually “To Be Fond Of Fish”, which would put me off on almost exactly the same rhetorical thread here.

Mitchell goes on to demonstrate by way of anecdote and paragraphs containing numbers, many of them long enough to have commas, that New Englanders eat cheese. He reports how the census of 1850 shows that “Vermont produced more cheese than all other states put together except Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, and New York, and did it from 148,128 cows”, which sounds pretty impressive until you remember in 1850 if you rule out Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, and New York, you’re left with maybe four other states. It’s impressive Vermont could out-cheese, I don’t know what’s left, Delaware and Bleeding Kansas, but if they’re not going up directly against Ohio what’s the point of the statistic? Other than having a suspiciously precise count of cheese-generating cows of Vermont in 1850. (But if they were making up their cheese-generating cow count why not add in twenty imaginary cows and make the number a nice repeating 148,148? I can’t see any sense in that either.)

He also mentions how Cheshire, Massachusetts, sent a cheese weighing 1,450 pounds to President Jefferson, which he formally received on New Year’s Day, 1802. Apparently on the first slice of it Jefferson said, “I will cause this auspicious event to be placed on the records of our nation and it will ever shine amid its glorious archives”, which doesn’t sound at all like he’s reading a prepared statement from his pro-cheese kidnappers. But it also undermines the claim about New Englanders eating cheese because, and I’ve checked this thoroughly, Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a New Englander. I’m not even sure he was speaking to any New Englanders by 1802, and if he did, it was just to accuse them of lying about rocks.

Anyway, I guess all the cheese-production statistics do prove that New Englanders made plenty of cheese. But just because there’s a certain per capita production of cheese doesn’t mean that it’s all going to the purposes of being eaten. New Englanders might just be stockpiling vast reserves of cheddar and other, less popular kinds of cheeses, perhaps in the hopes of constructing a vast dome of cheese that completely shields their state from the oncoming winter snow. This won’t work, but it should make commercial aviation over twenty percent more thrilling and kind of parmesan-y. Plus a sufficiently thick layer of cheese above all of New England should allow the region’s residents to finally overcome backyard astronomy.

The thing is, while I’m satisfied with Mitchell’s thesis that New Englanders eat cheese, I’m not convinced that’s a particularly New England custom. Another set of people who could be characterized as “eating cheese” would be “pretty near everyone possessing the gene that renders them capable of digesting milk products”. If you wanted to make a map of Western Civilization, you might do it by examining where the local culture derives from the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations as filtered through the philosophical development of Christianity and the rediscovery of Aristotle leading to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the rise of the liberal-democratic social contract, or you could just look for where the menus describe items as ‘cheesey’. Most of the people either place are going to eat cheese. Eating cheese seems a peculiarly New England custom in much the same way ‘liking the warm weather’ or ‘secretly hoping for an excuse to use the big stapler they keep in the supply closet’ or ‘preferring not to be pelted with excessively many rocks while changing a tire in a freezing rain’ are.

Anyway, I don’t want to put you off the book, because it contains the statement, “From Massachusetts comes a delightful tale of cheesemongering”, and if that hasn’t improved your day by at least ten percent then I think we just don’t have anything in common. I’m sorry.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

7 thoughts on “In Which I Try Stirring Up A New England Cheese Controversy”

  1. All right Joseph, let’s get personal here … do YOU like cheese? I didn’t get that from reading your article and I know that wasn’t your point. But I’m curious if you like cheese or not — your article may play into a bias of sorts depending upon what your answer is.

    My favorite part of your article was, “… Thomas Jefferson [TJ] wasn’t a New Englander. I’m not even sure he was speaking to any New Englanders by 1802, and if he did, it was just to accuse them of lying about rocks.”

    Did TJ actually make that accusation? Is this

    And as being a further non-sequitous person in regard to your article … here are some cheese facts (see link below). http://www.antonellischeese.com/cheese-faqs

    And something personal about me … I ❤ cheese. A LOT. 🙂

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    1. I do like cheese, quite a bit. Cheese is a good part of why until about five years ago I weighed upwards of 6500 pounds and had to move around primarily by rolling downhill. I’ve got that a bit more under control since then.

      At the risk of getting all history-nerd, actually, it’s kind of complicated: Jefferson is often quoted as saying he could more easily believe that a Yankee professor would lie than that a rock would fall from the heavens, disputing Yale professors Benjamin Silliman and James Kingsley’s documentation of a meteor storm, with impacts, over Connecticut. However, there don’t seem to be strong sources of this Jefferson quote prior to the late 19th century, so it’s quite plausible that he was never actually spotted saying such a thing.

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        1. Well, I admit exaggerating a little bit and rounding up some for the sake of a good line. I don’t believe I ever actually weighed in at more than 6,315 pounds, although some of my older pants do qualify as storm shelters.

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    1. Oh, I’ve been to Brattleborough once, in grad school, when I was looking for some fun and things can get kind of dull in the Troy, New York area. A friend from Binghamton and I drove out to Brattleborough and then just into New Hampshire, and then, we went back home.

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