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culture: the word on cheese

culture: the word on cheese

At Baumgartner’s Tavern in Monroe, Wis., there’s a sandwich that makes out-of-towners recoil in worry. On the painted menu strung above the bar, wedged between humdrum gadgets like “Sloppy Chili Dog” and “Old-Fashioned Soup,” its identify can be straightforward to overlook—if not for the ruckus it incites.  

“Limburger.” A identify steeped in reminiscence and which means; a word that elicits a visceral response. Sitting incognito at the far finish of the bar, I watch the drama unfold. Three ladies visiting from Milwaukee dare one one other to attempt the well-known menu merchandise: thick items of limburger cheese and uncooked pink onion between slices of rye bread. The bravest one volunteers. She pinches her nostril shut in preparation. Her buddies look on, eyes large with cringe and curiosity. 

Certainly, they’ve heard the tales. The rumors of wedding ceremony pranksters who smear limburger cheese atop a honeymoon automotive’s engine, sending an assaulting aroma by means of the car as the newlyweds drive away. Perhaps they learn The Invalid’s Story by Mark Twain, during which two males mistake a field of limburger for a decaying corpse. Maybe they keep in mind seeing The Three Stooges faint over a whiff of the cheese, or they watched Charlie Chaplin toss it into enemy trenches in Shoulder Arms, its stink compelling give up. No matter they’ve heard, limburger’s fame precedes it. The courageous vacationer closes her eyes and takes a chew.   

Monroe’s Stalwart 

Limburger’s far-flung infamy belies its humble origins. The subsequent morning, simply down the street at the Chalet Cheese Cooperative, a genteel native named Myron Olson exhibits me how he makes Nation Citadel Limburger: the method he discovered to 48 years in the past when he was in highschool. A few mornings every week, he fills an open vat with milk, transforms it into curd, and pumps it onto an oblong, cheesecloth-covered desk, forming a slab that’s minimize into 70 blocks.  

After salting the younger limburgers, he hauls them into an getting old cave thick with humid air and locations them on pine cabinets. A small metallic bucket sits adjoining, full of a frothy concoction: the brine. A heady mixture of salt water and ripening micro organism, it’s used to scrub the limburgers twice throughout their first week of getting older, rendering them rosy and barely ripe. 

Quickly the blocks might be wrapped in foil and transferred to a cooling room, the place they’ll rework from salty and feta-like to creamy and luscious over a number of months. In the meantime, earlier than the pine boards are washed, the remnants of rind remaining on the wooden are scraped off right into a recent saltwater bucket, inoculating a brand new batch of brine. That course of propagates the similar bacterial cultures which were used to make limburger at Chalet Cheese—Wisconsin’s oldest cooperative dairy—for over 100 years.   

“It used to be that this room was full of ’em,” Olson says of the pine cabinets as we stand in the cave. He factors to an empty nook on the reverse aspect of the room. “The shelves went all the way to there—there was just enough room for us to get by. That’s how much limburger we used to go through.”  

Abruptly, the room feels very empty: These few cabinets characterize all that is still of an iconic cheese that was as soon as amongst the hottest in the US. And in just some weeks, Olson, the nation’s solely Grasp Cheesemaker specialised in limburger, can be retiring. What will occur to the final limburger in America?  

Younger blocks of limburger age on pine cabinets at Chalet Cheese.

New Child on the Block  

Limburger first popped up in Wisconsin following a wave of immigration in the late 1800s. Initially a Belgian cheese, it had been replicated and popularized in Germany; right here in Inexperienced County, it was reinvented anew.  

In an space closely populated with newcomers from Germany and Switzerland, limburger turned a common rendering of a standard homeland custom: the washed-rind wheel of wintertime. Simply as with European classics like Vacherin Mont d’Or and Reblochon, it was born of practicality. In winter, milk was scarce and fatty; giant Alpine-style wheels have been much less sensible. And so when Inexperienced County farmers weren’t making Swiss cheese, they made limburger. They ate it for breakfast on toast, dolloped with strawberry jam or honey; they wedged it right into a rye-and-onion sandwich and washed it down with beer at the tavern. It was cheap and ample. It was the workingman’s cheese.  

Based as the Swiss Cheese Manufacturing unit by a gaggle of 5 Inexperienced County dairy farmers in 1885, the Chalet Cheese Cooperative rode the coattails of that New World limburger craze. As immigrant communities expanded all through the japanese United States, precipitating demand, the cooperative—alongside with many neighbor dairies—grew to satisfy it. In 1926, 98 % of limburger made in Wisconsin was made in Inexperienced County; by 1935, virtually 7 million kilos of limburger was being made in Wisconsin. To move the scads of washed-rind blocks from these rolling inexperienced hills to close by cities, a native practice line was established—the Milwaukee 508, nicknamed “The Limburger Special.”  

By the 1920s, even the Kraft brothers—German descendants who started their dairy empire as a Chicago cheese distribution firm—have been on board. They teamed up with Chalet Cheese to distribute limburger, fueling the cooperative’s continued progress. Olson, an area child who grew up on a dairy farm, started working at the manufacturing unit in 1970 to economize for school. “I’d come over after school, wrap limburger, and go home at nine o’clock at night,” he remembers. In school, he studied cheesemaking and earned his limburger license. He returned to Chalet Cheese throughout its mid-70s prime, when the manufacturing unit was turning out two million kilos of limburger per yr.  

Cheesemaker Myron Olson (proper) will quickly cross the torch to Jamie Fahrney (left).

Robust Occasions 

But even when these pine cabinets, rye sandwiches, and freight automobiles overflowed with a bounty of limburger cheese, not every thing was arising roses for the rubicund block. From malignment in popular culture to political controversy, limburger couldn’t catch a break.  

As early as 1885, Monroe-based politician Lohn Luschinger described 25 close by cheese factories producing “a premeditated outrage on upon the organs of smell”; round the similar time, Mark Twain referred to as the cheese’s aroma “most evil.” In 1902 in Louisville, Ky., a ban on all Limburger cheese was declared. Calling it “unwholesome” and citing its “many microbes,” native well being officer Dr. M. Okay. Allen equated the cheese with a fetish for “animal life.” (Allen shortly clarified that this affinity solely existed amongst “some people”; a group of native Germans quickly protested the order to no avail).  

Some years later in Iowa, a mailman was overcome with the odor of a limburger-filled parcel; the native postmaster, citing a rule towards “objectionable” scents, quickly banned all shipments of the cheese. “Limburger: Fragrant in Monroe; Putrid in Iowa,” learn a headline in the Milwaukee Journal. Putrid, unwholesome, objectionable, evil: Have been these caustic descriptors mere tasting notes—or did additionally they reek of skepticism towards the immigrants and working-class taverngoers who so beloved the cheese? 

Both approach, it was not a great time to be pungent in America. By the mid-20th century, the refrigeration period arrived in full pressure. In gleaming kitchens, meals have been hidden from sight and odor; cleansing merchandise waged conflict towards microbes. Crafty cheese corporations tailored. Delicate wedges appealed to trendy sensibilities and have been cheaper to supply. American cheese was born. “Cheese with flavor went out of style,” Olson says.  

Beginning in the mid-1940s, limburger manufacturing in the United States embarked on a gentle decline. Between 1950 and 1960, the variety of limburger crops in the nation dropped by two-thirds; by the early 1980s, there was just one left: the Chalet Cheese Cooperative. Along with cornering 100 % of the remaining US limburger market—which has now dwindled to lower than 500,000 kilos—the co-op has survived by producing a variety of different sought-after cheeses, from Wisconsin brick to an award-winning child Swiss.  

Protecting it Actual  

Wanting again at Limburger’s rise and fall, Olson can’t shake a way of irony. About 14 years in the past, Kraft accomplished its pivot towards bland, processed cheeses with its very final order for Chalet Cheese’s limburger, ending 70 years of collaboration. However quickly after, artisan washed rind cheeses started popping up on the market. “People still wanted their stinky cheese,” Olson says, “but they had to go to a different source.”  

Sticky, orange, and pungent, at the moment’s washed rinds have a special popularity. They win awards. They’re tucked into valuable packaging and boast excessive worth tags. “When I say ‘limburger,’ right away people say ‘No, no, I’ve heard the stories, I don’t want to try it,’” says Olson. “But if I gave them that same piece and said, ‘This is Saint Michael’s reserve, specially washed, specially cured just for you,’ would they try it? ‘Oh sure, let me try it, it smells, but it’s really got a good flavor.’”  

 It could be wrapped in foil packaging that hasn’t modified in many years, however like the trendiest washed-rind wheels, limburger is an artisanal cheese. “This is the old standby, the open vat,” Olson explains as we stroll by way of the facility, which continues to be cooperatively owned by a gaggle of 16 farmers. “Nowadays [many cheesemakers] use vats that are closed, that are mechanized; they make good cheese, but not the old-fashioned way.”  

Maybe nothing is extra “old fashioned” than that effervescent bucket of brine, teeming with cultures propagated at the dairy since 1911. It was almost misplaced in 1947, when Chalet Cheese moved from its unique plant to its present location. Constructed with funding from Kraft, this dairy was imagined to be the most trendy limburger plant in America—proper right down to its model new ripening cultures and glowing clear growing older planks.  

However there was an issue. “The first month all they had was green moldy cheese,” Olson says. Whereas the inexperienced limburger stumped proponents of the trendy manufacturing unit, the supervisor at the time, a Swiss native named Albert Deppeler, had a hunch: Perhaps the sanitized manufacturing unit was too trendy. He schlepped down the hill to seize the previous manufacturing unit’s picket boards and decades-old schmear, and introduced them to the facility. Inside a month, the new manufacturing unit was turning out genuine, rosy-hued limburger: a testomony to the cheese’s custom and terroir.  

Tried and True  

Then there’s the matter of taste. Again at Baumgartner’s Tavern, the courageous Milwaukee vacationer washes her chew down with a beer and reassures her buddies: It’s not so dangerous. Bartender C.J. Kindschi tells me that no less than half of first-timers are pleasantly stunned. “The legend is a lot worse,” he says, standing beneath a tin signal that reads: “Limburger: Don’t eat it with your nose.” Certainly, the blocks are creamy, wealthy, and strong, savory and with a light pungency that will increase barely with time.  

If limburger have been on the brink of extinction, you wouldn’t realize it at Baumgartner’s. Positive, courageous vacationers order it on a dare—however native regulars additionally head to the tavern for a limburger sandwich and a beer, as they’ve since the 1800s. “It’s definitely one of our more popular menu items,” Kindschi says. “Maybe because there aren’t that many places you can get a limburger sandwich.” (The one different he is aware of of is Swiss Haus, simply down the road.)   

Carol Tourdot, aka “The Limburger Queen,” has been affixing labels to limburgers at Chalet for 42 years. Right here, she dons her garb for the Inexperienced County Cheese Days pageant.

Right here the cheese is a supply of native satisfaction. Throughout the city’s biennial cheese pageant, a “Limburger Queen” parades down the road to a lot fanfare, whereas meals stalls sling limburger sliders and limburger T-shirts fly off the cabinets in the swag tent. At the Nationwide Historic Cheesemaking Middle a couple of blocks away, Chuck Ekena, a retired schoolteacher and volunteer in the on-site museum, exhibits me a whole exhibit wall dedicated to the cheese, replete with an inventory of “Positive Points about Limburger.” “Limburger? That’s good stuff,” Ekena says. “But I have to go to Baumgartner’s to eat it, because my wife won’t let me bring it home.”  

Certainly, it’s nonetheless the butt of a joke—however boosted by a mixture of nostalgia and steadfast loyalty, limburger lives on. “Even though production is a fraction of what it once was,” says Suzanne Isige, market analysis supervisor at the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, “we still get the occasional call from someone trying to track down the limburger cheese their dad or grandad used to enjoy.”  

“We like to say we’re the granddad of stinky cheese—we’ve been here forever,” Olson says proudly after introducing me to Jamie Fahrney, his soon-to-be alternative. Fahrney, a Grasp Cheesemaker licensed in child Swiss who has been working alongside Olson at Chalet Cheese for 40 years, says the transfer to overseeing limburger “is just a natural step.” He sees distribution as a problem for limburger, however isn’t too fearful about decreased demand. “I don’t see it declining—hopefully it will increase,” he says.  

“The desire is there,” Olson says, nodding in settlement. Certainly, once I ask him to explain his common shopper, he sums it up: “Oh, they’re probably 76 years old,” he says. “But they’d swim a river and climb a mountain to get their limburger.” 

Molly McDonough

Senior Editor Molly McDonough labored for cheesemakers in Switzerland and the US earlier than incomes a Grasp’s diploma in Agriculture and Meals Science at the Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture in Angers, France. After spending a yr in Romania working on rural improvement tasks with Heifer Worldwide, she returned house to Boston and joined the tradition group in 2015.

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