Looking Back: The New England Cheese Controversy


I haven’t exactly been binging my own archive. More just sort of nibbling around pieces of it. And I thought I’d share some older stuff that I still like. Also maybe include some thoughts about it.

Anyway, here’s one that’s mostly built out of Edwin Valentine Mitchell’s piece of pop anthropology, It’s An Old New England Custom. I’ve never lived anywhere that had any kind of regional self-esteem. But I appreciate that New Englanders do, and like to play up how they’re some weird slightly alien species. With this piece, I question whether the alleged New England fondess to eat cheese is really all that particular.

Mitchell’s book is available online, and I’ll go ahead and suppose legitimately because that’s easier than actually thinking. Here’s one copy on archive.org, and here’s another. Cheese is the third chapter. It comes in after it being an old New England custom “To Serve Turkey and Cranberry Sauce” but before “To Be Fond Of Fish”.

Every Home Repair Show I Ever Happen To See


The show starts with some upbeat music, cheery stuff that keeps threatening to have a tune. The credits dissolve to Jeff, who’s wearing a blue shirt along with his tool belt. “Hi there,” he says, “And thanks for joining us for another episode of Fixed In A Jeffy. We’ve been working for the last several weeks on a lovely ten-story single-family dwelling in Naugatuck, Rhode Island, and we’re going to continue not listening to those spoilsports at the historical society who say it’s Connecticut. Let’s check in with Jeff and see what he’s found.”

They cut to another Jeff, who’s got a red shirt but lacks a tool belt. He says, “This lovely building, with a footprint of nearly 120 square feet, was originally built in late 1886 as a cotton distillery who saw potential in the Pawcatuck River and didn’t know where they were. It was rebuilt as a different cotton distillery in early 1887 and again in 1893 by people who had a knack for assembling these things. During the Second World War employees in this facility put strands of the finest, strongest treated wool across the Norden bomb sight until the War Department caught them. We’re hoping to convert it to fit a small family like ours.”

The first Jeff says, “And there’s some real time pressure here. We’ve only got about a week until the owner gets back and probably picks some kind of fight with us. So let’s take a peek at a home in Eddie Foy, South Carolina, which much like Jeff’s here has got walls.”

There’s a musical interlude and the show comes to another Jeff, who’s got a green shirt and doesn’t care who sees him. This Jeff steps into the two-story hall with cats running up and down the stairs. “Homeowner Jeff has been gutting this absolutely gorgeous room, and it turns out to be because of a common mistake made the last time the house was renovated. Can you tell us what that was, and how many people are making it even without looking?”

Homeowner Jeff, wearing a white collared shirt that’s got two nonconsecutive buttons undone says, “We were experimenting with a nontraditional wall covering. We hoped to cover from floor to ceiling with a sparkling red lycra and that didn’t work at all. In the first place, cats would leap at the walls and get stuck, and then they’d be angry at whoever un-catched their claws. Un-caught their claws. Unclawed their catches.” Other Jeff slaps his shoulder, breaking him out of this loop. “We could have lived with that, but we also got joggers. Non-competitive, of course.”

The first Jeff (third of that name) nods. “Of course; this isn’t the badlands. Still, you don’t want flocks of joggers coming through and breaking up your private community space. Still, it begs the question — ”

The first Jeff (the first one) cuts in, smiling, but not meaning it. “Now, Jeff, we’ve talked about this. You mean to say this raises or asks the question. Back to our recorded segment from South Carolina.”

The third Jeff (the third one) nods, on tape. “You’re right of course. This raises the question, why lycra in the first place?”

The fourth (second) Jeff says, “We got there by a very interesting path and let me share the story with you. But first, I want to show you something.” He opens the door and they walk through a dissolve cut to the bottom of the driveway. “I designed my own mailbox so that it would look like an obscure dolphin called the melon-headed whale. You just slip a piece of paper in here — ” and he does, “And a little flag pops right up through its blowhole!” Which it certainly does.

Jeff (one of them) nods, saying, “Thank you. That is a creative and distinct way to comply with no currently known postal regulations.” A cat races out of the open door, leaps up the left Jeff, and lands on the flatbed of a truck that’s puttering down the street, which carries it out of sight. “I think some of this might be useful to you up in Vermont. Jeff?”

They return to the second Jeff. “Now, we’ve talked about this. Vermont and Rhode Island are radically different places, what with being represented in completely separate divisions of Lechmere’s Department Stores back in the day.” The camera pulls back to reveal he’s standing in front of the air conditioner unit behind the house. “So. We’ve found something alarming back here that isn’t just a repeat of the hornet incident. Join us for next week’s Fixed in a Jeffy when we look into that, won’t you please?”

Yes, I suppose that I shall.

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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