In January of next year, Washington, D.C. will host a parade in honor of the inauguration of the new president, whomever he or she may be. This tradition dates back to 1805 — Thomas Jefferson was feted with such a processional that year — but it wasn’t the only one back then. Jefferson also began a tradition of inviting well-wishers and supporters (and, really, anyone else) to come visit him at the White House. The open house, per History.com, continued until Grover Cleveland’s when security concerns began taking priority over this neat way to engage one’s constituents.
But along the way, the open house tradition inspired a new one — one which gave us “Big Block of Cheese Day” starting in 2014, and continuing through this year.
“Big Block of Cheese Day” is an official event hosted by the Obama White House. The 2015 page for the event promised that, on January 21st, “members of the Obama administration will take to social media to answer your questions about the President’s State of the Union address and the issues that are most important to you.” The page for Big Block of Cheese Day 2016 echoed a similar refrain: “After President Obama gives his final State of the Union address on Tuesday night,” the page states, “we’re inviting Cabinet officials, members of Congress, Senior White House officials and special guests for a day-long engagement event on social media.” Like Thomas Jefferson’s open house two centuries prior, Big Block of Cheese Day gave everyday people direct access to government officials, although in this case, it wasn’t quite in-person.
This wasn’t a new idea. The Obama administration got the idea from The West Wing, the 1999 television drama. The show featured a fake President, White House, and cabinet, but like many TV dramas, tried to come off as real (while, of course, being anything but). In its first season, the show introduced “Big Block of Cheese Day,” which Wikipedia summarizes as “a fictional workday on which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry encourages his staff to meet with fringe special interest groups that normally would not get attention from the White House.” But why “Big Block of Cheese Day”? So far, there’s been no mention of the food.
So, let’s travel back more than 150 years — and back to reality. It all started with a dairy farmer near Oswego, New York, who wanted to show off a bit.
The dairy farmer was a man named Thomas S. Meacham who, in the words of Mental Floss, “had the know-how to craft a titanic cheddar.” In 1835, Meacham decided to promote his cheese-making proclivities by making a ten-pack of huge cheeses and bringing them to a local fair. He decided to dedicate the largest wheel of cheese — weighing in at 1,400 pounds — to President Andrew Jackson and then went one step further. At the end of the Oswego festival, Meacham loaded the cheese onto a boat and sent it to the White House, as a gift for the President.
Jackson wasn’t sure what to do with such a huge amount of cheese, and it’s really hard to meter out that much cheese as gifts. Two years later — 1837 — the lion’s share of the dairy product remained at the White House, and Jackson was leaving office that March. So in celebration of Washington’s Birthday that year, Jackson held a Jefferson-style open house — and cheese was on the menu:
That’s the result — a lot of well-dressed people eating a lot of well-aged cheese.
Jackson successfully engaged his constituents and his enemies — most reports suggest that Jackson was unconcerned with the politics of the attendees and mostly concerned with being seen as a generous man of the people (while also ridding the White House of what was becoming an unintentional museum exhibit). Per various reports, roughly 10,000 people paid Jackson a visit that day, and the cheese was gone within two hours.
The smell, however, persisted; according to the White House Historical Association, “the stain and smell in the Entrance Hall lasted for a long while.” The legacy, due to the West Wing and the Obama events, has lasted even longer — although there was a pretty long hiatus and a stop-over into fantasy along the way.
From the Archives: The History of Fondue and the Cheese Cartel that Popularized It : The reason we have cheese parties (well, for those of you who do) is because of this convoluted story.