The Great Cheese War of 1935

Kids are funny: they do stupid stuff over and over again until they’re hurt or humiliated, and it’s only then that they learn not to do it again. All of us probably remember being repeatedly told “not to play on the railing, ‘cos you’ll fall off and get hurt” or “don’t run with scissors in your hand” and totally ignoring that advice… until you fell off the railing and broke your arm, or fell with the scissors and cut yourself.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but I had a similar thing with Limburger cheese.

Originally from Duchy of Limburg, an interesting corner of the Holy Roman Empire where modern day Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet, Limburger cheese is one of the foulest-smelling foods ever invented. When fresh, it’s a harmless hard cheese, not unlike feta. But then a bacteria is added which actually decomposes it into a creamy cheese… that positively reeks of ammonia. It smells… well, I can’t even describe it. Imagine if a soldier or homeless person wore the same boots for 6 months without taking them off once. Now, imagine the soldier or homeless person taking the boots off and sticking them into a giant pile of monkey diarrhea… while getting a perm… in a slaughterhouse. It’s about that bad, really.

German and Belgian immigrants brought Limburger with them to the US in the early 1880s… and Americans started making fun of it immediately, Seriously: it’s possible that the very first Limburger cheese joke was made on Ellis Island. It was called “the cheese you can find in the dark”. Vaudeville acts of German or Yiddish immigrants – even young Groucho Marx – were said to speak “Limburger English”. Mark Twain used Limburger in a short piece called “The Invalid’s Story”, in which a man wants to take a dead friend home by train, but is mistakenly given a box full of guns. The box is placed next to a shipment of Limburger, which begins to stink… so the protagonist thinks it’s his dead friend stinking up the rail car.

In real life, an Irish woman in New York City tried to commit suicide in 1895 because her German husband ate Limburger all the time and tried to “get amorous” with her with it on his breath. That same year, a strike broke out at a dairy in Newark when a Swedish worker smeared Limburger all over some equipment as a prank, causing anti-Swedish sentiment to boil over, which caused the Swedes to walk off the job.

Speaking of pranks, for decades comedies and cartoons had Limburger whenever something foul-smelling was needed, especially in Warner Brothers cartoons. Penelope Pussycat tried to escape from Pepé Le Pew by hiding in a Limburger factory to throw off her scent. A cartoon dog had Limburger dumped on him while reading the “a rose by any other name” line from Shakespeare in 1949’s A Ham in a Role, the “last cartoon of the Golden Age of American Animation”. And, of course, Tom and Jerry had Limburger in damn near every episode.

Kraft Limburger
Kraft Limburger makes an appearance in “Our Gang”.

For some reason, this cheese was available everywhere when I was a kid. No joke: you could go to a Piggly Wiggly on Route 207 in East Bumble, Alabama, and they’d have it by the lunch meat (next to the Oscar Mayer braunschweiger, which I actually like, but never see anyone buy, either). And every single time I saw it, I just had to smell it.

“It can’t be as bad as I remember it,” I’d think. But it always was. Worse even.

*     *     *

In 1935, a doctor in Independence, Iowa saw a woman with sinus issues. This being the age before Sudafed, he recommended some Limburger to open up those nasal passages. An order was therefore placed with a cheesemaker in Monroe, Wisconsin. John Burkhard, Monroe’s postmaster, approved the shipment, and soon the cheese was on its way to the ailing woman,

But the mail carrier in Independence was so offended by the smell of the cheese that he refused to deliver it. At the time, there was a postal rule prohibiting the mailing of “foul smelling” goods, so the carrier appealed to his local postmaster, Warren Miller, who agreed to send it back to Wisconsin… without him even examining the package.

You know how Wisconsin is synonymous with cheese? Yeah, that didn’t happen until a bunch of German and Swiss immigrants moved to the state in the 1840s. It took a few years, but by 1910 Wisconsin led the US in cheese production. And 1935 was less than 100 years since most of those cheesemakers arrived on American shores. To disparage Wisconsin cheese – especially Limburger, which only been in the US for 50 years – wasn’t insulting a faceless corporation: it was insulting someone’s father or grandfather.

Burkhard took the insult personally. He repackaged the cheese and returned it to Iowa. Miller sent it back. Burkhard, totally pissed, wrote to James A. Farley, Postmaster General of the United States. Farley had no idea what the problem was, so Burkhard sent him a sample of the cheese in the same packaging used to send the first package to Iowa. Farley agreed that the cheese was quite… pungent, but he also said that it was in no way hazardous, so it should have been delivered. But Miller obstinately refused to deliver the cheese.

At this point, the media got involved. The 1930s was the Decade of Bad News™. With the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo rising to power… a silly story like this was just what the country needed. So Burkhard challenged Miller to a “Cheese Duel”: Burkhard and Miller would sit at a table, and if Burkhard could cut a piece of Limburger cheese and Miller not wretch, Miller would be forbidden from complaining about Wisconsin and her cheese ever again. Miller took him up on it, and the two met at the Julien Hotel in Dubuque, Iowa on March 8, 1935.

Of course, neither Burkhard nor Miller traveled alone. Each brought a group of supporters, who stood around a table with a bunch of reporters. Tension was high at what Milwaukee Journal reporter Richard S. Davis called the “duel to the breath.” Burkhard opened a wooden box and carefully unwrapped a large chunk of Limburger cheese. Burkhard claimed that nothing on earth went better with beer than Limburger, and these cheese had an array of medicinal properties (a claim that the FDA probably wouldn’t allow today). Burkhard then offered Miller a gas mask or clothespin before “cutting the cheese”, a joke I’ve wanted to make for several paragraphs now.

Miller refused the gas mask and clothespin. Seconds before Burkhard pushed the cheese in his direction, Miller quietly admitted that he’d lost his sense of smell years before. This is why he’d simply taken his carrier’s word for it when the man had complained about the first Limburger package. Burkhard was named the winner, and Miller was therefore required to allow all Wisconsin cheese to pass through his postal route.

But the war wasn’t over. Miller couldn’t shake Burkhead’s comment about Limburger being the best food to eat with beer. In Miller’s part of the world, the preferred beer snack was smoked whitefish. In Miller’s view, this was much better than cheese, so he challenged Burkhard to a battle royal to determine the “Best Snack in the World”.

Things were getting serious now. A neutral site was chosen: the American Legion Hall at 300 Beichl Avenue in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. A group of independent judges was impaneled. They were immediate targets for corruption: both sides bought the judges a round of beer. But then the competition began: the judges tried the cheese and beer, then had the fish and beer. No consensus was reached, so another round of beer and cheese and beer and fish was ordered. No consensus? Another round was ordered, then another, then another. In the end, the entire jury was fall-down drunk, except for one poor guy who was sent to the podium to announce the “winner”: cheese and whitefish were both great with beer – it was officially a tie.

Of course, the folks in Wisconsin had a bit more to crow about. Their cheese had only been a few heartbeats away from being declared a “hazardous material” only a couple months before, and now it was co-holder of the title “Best Snack in the World”.

A few months later, Monroe held its annual “Cheese Day” celebration. Thanks to all the publicity from Burkhard and Miller, it was by far the most popular Cheese Day in history to that point: more than 50,000 people showed up to celebrate. This included Warren Miller… and the poor farmer’s wife whose sinuses had started off this whole mess. Her sinuses were fine, by the way.

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