Cheshire's 'Mammoth Cheese' feeds into White House event

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The White House is hosting its second annual virtual "Big Block of Cheese Day" today — and Cheshire's famous cheese plays a formative role in how it came to be.

"Here at the White House, we're dedicated to making President Obama's administration the most open and accessible in history. That's why, for the second year in a row, we thought it'd be a gouda idea to ... bring back a tradition that dates back to the days of President Andrew Jackson," the website states.

Through 6 p.m., the public can interact with members of the Obama administration on social media, where they are answering questions about the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night.

But why call the social media event the "Big Block of Cheese Day"?

According to the White House's website, it's an homage of sorts to an episode of "The West Wing" (The cast reunited to promote today's event) and to President Andrew Jackson. Jackson reportedly invited the public into the White House on Feb. 22, 1837, "for an open house with thousands of citizens and his staff, where they discussed the issues of the day while carving off slabs of cheddar" from a 1,400-pound cheese in the foyer.

But, the "Atlantic Monthly" points out, Jackson's public invitation has been misinterpreted, (as he reportedly wanted the cheese gone and didn't really interact with the public). The magazine article goes further, pointing out that Jackson's block of cheese wasn't the original, but a copy of the original "big block of cheese" arrived at the White House in January 1802, along with a delegation from Cheshire, Mass.

Cheshire, the only town in the Berkshires to support President Thomas Jefferson in the election, sent a 1,235-pound cheese to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the victory. The "Mammoth Cheese, known locally as the "Cheshire Cheese," was the brainchild of the town's Baptist minister, Elder John Leland, a big Jefferson supporter.

It was created, the magazine said, by combining the milk from every cow in town: some 900 cows, according to one report.

According to the New England Historical Society, the actual weight and dimensions of the cheese are unknown, as most accounts place the cheese between 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, while the accepted measurements are 14 feet in diameter and 18 inches thick.

The method by which it was hauled to Washington, D.C., is also one that hasn't fully been determined, according to the historical society, which writes on its website: "The citizens of Cheshire imprinted the cheese with Jefferson's personal motto: 'Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.' And in early November 1801, Leland began his journey to Washington, D.C., with the cheese."

Again, accounts of his travels vary. One story holds that six oxen pulled the cheese to the Hudson River and it traveled to Washington via water. Other reports say it was hauled entirely over land.

According to an article on Monticello.org, Jefferson had a policy of not accepting gifts while in office, so he made a donation of $200 to Leland's congregation to show that he was indeed impressed with the gift.

Today, a small statue shaped like the cheese press — a tribute to Leland and the "Mammoth Cheese" — can be found on the corner of School and Main streets in Cheshire.


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