The West Wing on, um, brie-peat: Is this what our non-fictional democracy has come to? As Allison Janney, who played C.J. Cregg on the show, puts it in the event's promotional video: "You feta believe it."
You feta, indeed. The West Wing's Big Block of Cheese, as befits its creamy expanse, has become a cultural icon (and not just for the cameo performance it occasioned from a young, only-lightly-mustachioed Nick Offerman). It has been memorialized, in its way, in literary fiction. It has inspired a children’s picture book. It has inspired countless other acts of creative democracy, all in recognition of the fact that, if the American experiment is running as it should, every day should be Big Block of Cheese Day.
It turns out, however, that the Big Block of Cheese, this most American of American cheeses, is misunderstood—as a piece of history, as a piece of pop culture, as a piece of dairy. Jackson, who one historian notes "didn't think he should be guided by public opinion," offered the cheese to the public not so much in a spirit of open conversation as in one of desperation. Nor was he the first chief executive to receive an enormous cheese as a gesture of the relationship between the president and the people. The Big Block of Cheese was, more than anything else—perhaps just as it is today—a political tool, earnest and cynical in equal measure.
Here is the real story (or, if you wanted to be White House-ian about it, the Brie! True Washington Story) of the Big Block of Cheese. Which was not a block so much as a wheel. And which was not a singular dairy product so much as a series of them.
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First, the story of the Jacksonian BBOC of The West Wing lore. This iconic cheddar came courtesy of Colonel Thomas Meacham, a dairy farmer in Sandy Creek, New York. In 1835, to flaunt his cheese-making ingenuity, he created ten cheeses, which he revealed at a public celebration in Oswego. The biggest of these was four feet in diameter and two feet tall. It weighed nearly 1,400 pounds. Meacham dedicated it to Andrew Jackson.
He delivered it to him, too. The enormous wheel of cheese was shipped on a schooner bound for Washington, D.C., wearing a belt that, according to a dispatch from Utica’s newspaper, was “got up with much taste, presenting a fine bust of the President, surrounded by a chain of twenty-four States united and linked together.” (Meacham proceeded to send some of the lesser specimens in his collection, two 750-pound wheels of cheddar, to Vice President Martin Van Buren and New York Governor William Marcy.)
For the president, it seems, Meacham’s gift was a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand: all that cheese! But on the other: all that cheese. According to one Washingtonian, the thing was, besides being enormous, “an evil-smelling horror”—one whose aroma stretched for several blocks beyond the White House itself.