“Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of the White House, had a two-ton block of cheese. It was there, for any and all who were hungry, it was there for the voiceless.” Those words came from fictional White House chief of staff Leo McGarry on season two of The West Wing. They also, in part, served as the inspiration for the very real Big Block of Cheese Day currently going at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, during which administration higher-ups like Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama and nonfictional chief of staff Dennis McDonough will answer questions from The People about whatever is on their minds. At this point the amount of actual cheese eating that will occur is unknown. BBOCD is a nice way to bring the executive branch closer to the American people, but what of the actual cheese and the poor, huddled masses whom Andrew Jackson supposedly provided it for? It turns out McGarry’s speech, much like McGarry himself, is only based on a true story.
Andrew Jackson did in fact keep an enormous block of cheese in the White House, but that seems to be where the similarities with The West Wing speech end. The legend makes it sound almost as if Jackson were on a humanitarian quest to up the dairy consumption of poor Americans. Actually, the giant cheese was a gift to the president, and worse, it wasn’t even an original idea. According to Benjamin Perley Poore in his 1886 book Perley’s Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis, Thomas Jefferson received an awe-inspiring 1,600-pound cheese behemoth from western Massachusetts and, “Jackson’s admirers thought that every honor which Jefferson had ever received should be paid him, so some of them residing in a rural district of New York, got up…a mammoth cheese for Old Hickory.” After a national tour that included New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, the cheese arrived at Jackson’s White House, where he kept it on display for a year. Then, during the final party he threw as president in 1837, he allowed anyone and everyone to get their fill of the open-air-aged New York cheese. That party produced, perhaps, one of the greatest descriptions of cheese eating on record, again from Poore:
"For hours did a crowd of men, women and boys hack at the cheese, many taking large hunks of it away with them. When they commenced, the cheese weighed one thousand four hundred pounds, and only a small piece was saved for the President’s use. The air was redolent with cheese, the carpet was slippery with cheese, and nothing else was talked about at Washington that day. Even the scandal about the wife of the President’s Secretary of War was forgotten in the tumultuous jubilation of that great occasion."
That scandal, by the way, was the infamous petticoat affair in which Jackson nominated John Eaton as Secretary of War even though Eaton had married a woman who supposedly had many affairs with married men. Accusations of extra-marital affairs in the 1800s were about as popular as they are today and the “respectable” wives of Jackson’s cabinet members were so put out that they (GASP) refused to pay courtesy calls to Eaton’s free-loving wife. Ultimately, Eaton resigned his position over it.
But back to the cheese. While the Big Block of Cheese may have, over more than a century of American history become a symbol of a caring democracy at work, according to a source on the ground at the time, it was really more of a gaudy party favor. But at the very least, it’s good to know that the power of cheddar, even for a single day, captivated the public more than a Washington sex scandal.
If you want to talk to someone in particular at the White House today, you can find the schedule of Obama administration officials taking part here.