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11 Things You Might Not Know About Cheese

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Happy National Cheese Day! Whether your thing is cream cheese, fancy cheese, spray cheese or night cheese, when it comes to this dairy product, there’s a whole lot to love. Here are 11 things you might not have contemplated about cheese—from royal-wedding cheese to the stinkiest cheese to couch-cushion cheese to the ultimate macaroni and cheese.

1. QUEEN VICTORIA RECEIVED A BEHEMOTH CHEESE AS A WEDDING PRESENT.


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During the celebration of her wedding to her first cousin Prince Albert in 1840, Queen Victoria received the gift of a 1250-pound, 9-foot-diameter cheddar. It was produced by a cooperative of cheesemakers from two villages, according to Steven W. Jenkins in Cheese Primer. “Perhaps baffled by how to serve it, she sent the cheese off on a tour of England,” Jenkins writes. “When attempts were made to return it to her, she refused to take it back.”

2. ANDREW JACKSON GAVE NEW MEANING TO THE TERM “BIG CHEESE.”

Andrew Jackson
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Fans of The West Wing might know a thing or two about this one. In 1835, a farmer in New York honored Andrew Jackson with a 1400-pound hulking hunk of cheddar cheese. Not knowing what to do with the mammoth cheddar, Jackson left it in the White House lobby to age for two years until he decided to throw his last public reception on George Washington’s birthday. “Everyone from Supreme Court justices to stable boys jammed the East Room to wish him well—and eat cheese,” writes Albert Marrin in Old Hickory: Andrew Jackson and the American People. “Oh, what a glorious day for cheese! Carpets grew slippery with cheese. Pockets filled with wedges of cheese. ‘All you heard was cheese; all you smelled was cheese,' a guest reported.”

3. THERE IS A SOMEWHAT OFFICIAL “WORLD’S STINKIEST CHEESE.”

Speaking of the smell of cheese, in 2004 researchers at Cranfield University in England used an “electronic nose,” along with a group of 19 human sniffers, to analyze cheese odors. A soft cheese from northern France called Vieux Boulogne was determined to be the most pungent. In fact, it even beat out Epoisses de Bourgogne, a cheese so stinky that it has apparently been banned from public transportation throughout France.

The Guardian had the Vieux Boulogne couriered to its offices, and reporter Patrick Barkham alleged that the cheese had “an aroma of six-week-old earwax.” He also wrote, “From a safe distance of 50 metres, the cheese emitted a pleasant eau de farmyard, replete with dung and Barbour jackets.”

4. THE WISCONSIN “CHEESEHEAD” BEGAN WITH A BURNT COUCH CUSHION.

While France is known for its elegant (and sometimes nostril-assaulting) cheeses, our very own Wisconsin holds its own in the cheese department. The No. 1 producer of cheese in the United States, the state license plate boasts “America’s Dairyland” and state legislators even honored Lactococcus lactis, the bacterium used to make Colby, cheddar, and Monterey Jack, as Wisconsin’s official microbe. But not only is Wisconsin home to a multitude of cheese producers, it just might be the official HQ of cheese lovers worldwide. After all, nothing but true, deep, utterly mad love would possess a person to wear a wedge of cheese as a hat.

The idea for the foam Cheesehead, now worn proudly by Wisconsinites at Green Bay Packers games, came to Milwaukee native Ralph Bruno nearly 27 years ago on a whim. Bruno told the Los Angeles Times that he was reupholstering his mother’s couch when he discovered he had a leftover cushion. He randomly began burning holes into the foam rubber until his mother shooed him outdoors because of the stench. Out in the yard, Bruno painted the cushion yellow and affixed it to his head. Then he wore it to a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers. It caught on throughout the world of Wisconsin sports.

5. CHEESE BRINE IS AN ANTIDOTE FOR MILWAUKEE’S ICY ROADS.

If you thought nothing could top the foam Cheesehead in Wisconsinites’ dedication to all things cheese, think again. Last month, Milwaukee introduced a first-time program to repurpose cheese brine to keep its roads from freezing. Because rock salt is expensive, the brine was mixed with the salt to make it stretch further. The natural salts in the brine also help it to break down the ice and the snow.

6. THE HOLES IN SWISS CHEESE ARE NOT CAUSED BY NIBBLING MICE.

A piece of Swiss cheese
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The holes in Swiss cheese, oddly called “eyes,” are caused by carbon dioxide gas bubbles that are produced by bacteria during fermentation, according to Don Vorhees in Why Do Donuts Have Holes? Fascinating Facts About What We Eat and Drink. The longer the cheese ferments, the larger the holes grow. By adjusting the various bacterial growth conditions like temperature, acidity, and the length of the curing time, a cheesemaker can control the size of the holes.

7. THERE WAS A VELVEETA SHORTAGE IN 2014 THAT CAME TO BE KNOWN AS A "CHEESEPOCALYPSE."

In early 2014, Kraft confirmed to NBC News that Velveeta was in limited supply. The cheese-loaf shortage was apparently due to Kraft moving Velveeta’s production lines from a plant in Minnesota to another plant in Illinois. NPR referred to the shortage as a possible “Cheesepocalypse.”

8. WHEN IN DOUBT ABOUT MOLDY CHEESE, TOSS IT OUT.

Moldy cheese
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It’s well known that mold on cheese isn’t always something to worry about and sometimes it’s even to be enjoyed, but what about those times when a cheese should be thrown away? According to registered dietician Katherine Zeratsky on the Mayo Clinic’s website, soft cheeses like cream cheese, ricotta cheese and cottage cheese that have grown mold should be discarded. So should any type of cheese that’s crumbled, sliced, or shredded.

Hard and semisoft cheeses like Colby, cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss aren’t easily penetrated by mold, however, so you can cut away the moldy part and eat the rest. And of course cheeses like Camembert and Brie (and Gorgonzola—yum!), which mold is actually used to make, are completely safe to eat.

“If you’re not sure what type of cheese you have or what to do if it grows mold, the safe course is to discard it,” Zeratsky says.

9. THE VIRGIN MARY GRILLED CHEESE WAS SURPRISINGLY MOLD-FREE.

Back in 2004, there was that crazy grilled cheese sandwich that supposedly bore the face of the Virgin Mary and sold for $28,000 on eBay. The seller, Diana Duyser of Hollywood, Florida, apparently claimed that the sandwich was completely mold free, even though it was stored in a not-completely-airtight container. Brendan Koerner of Slate decided to exhaustively analyze how the sandwich failed to sprout a single spore of mold. He supplies several hypotheses, including the idea that the trans fats in the margarine repelled the mold and that the bread was full of mold-prohibitive preservatives. But, surprisingly, he also believes it very well could have been the cheese.

“The cheese filling, aside from contributing to the sandwich’s fat content, also added calcium to the mix,” Koerner explains. “Calcium is a mild mold retardant, though less so than margarine. The acidic cheese may have also altered the pH level of the sandwich; bread mold grows best when the pH is more or less neutral.”

10. AMERICA’S MOST POPULAR CHEESE DISH IS MAC AND CHEESE.

The award for most popular cheese recipe in the United States goes to macaroni and cheese, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. The largest macaroni and cheese, according to Guinness World Records, weighed 2469 pounds and was made by Cabot Creamery Cooperative in Fulton Square in New Orleans. The recipe called for 286 pounds of cheese, 575 pounds of cooked macaroni, 56 pounds of butter, 26 pounds of flour, 1100 pounds of milk, and 61 pounds of dry seasoning.

11. IT’S POSSIBLE TO BE A PROFESSIONAL CHEESE SCULPTOR

There are three professional cheese sculptors in the United States, according to NPR. Sarah Kaufmann, also known as the “Cheese Lady,” is one of them. Kaufmann carves cheese for Super Bowl parties, weddings, corporate functions, state fairs, and dairy-association events. Her sculptures have ranged from a 120-pound Mickey Mouse to a 300-pound gorilla to various TV personalities (Jay Leno, Matt Lauer, Marc Summers) to a six-foot long model of the USS Reagan aircraft carrier. “It’s much more delightful than working with wood or stone,” Kaufmann told NPR. “You can snack while you work.”

An earlier version of this article ran in 2014.

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This Just In
The Honey Smacks In Your Pantry May Be Contaminated With Salmonella
Doc_Brown, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped.
Doc_Brown, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped.

Salmonella, a bacterial food-borne illness often associated with raw eggs and undercooked chicken, has been linked recently to a popular children's cereal. According to Snopes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging consumers to avoid Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, citing the brand as the likely cause of the Salmonella outbreak spreading across the U.S.

Since early March, 73 people in 31 states have contracted the virus. Salmonella clears up in most people on its own, but in some cases it can lead to hospitalization or even death. Twenty-four victims have been admitted to hospitals so far, with no reported deaths. Of the 39 patients who were questioned, 30 of them remembered eating cold cereal and 14 of them specifically cited Honey Smacks.

In response to the outbreak, the Kellogg Company has recalled its 15.3-ounce and 23-ounce boxes of Honey Smacks printed with any "best if used by" date between June 14, 2018 and June 14, 2019 (recalled boxes are labeled on the bottom with the UPC codes 3800039103 or 3800014810). The CDC recommends that you take even greater precautions by throwing out or returning any Honey Smacks you have at home, regardless of package size, "best by" date, or whether your family has eaten from the box previously without getting sick.

Symptoms of Salmonella include diarrhea, fever, headache, and abdominal pain, and usually appear 12 hours to three days after the contaminated food is ingested. If you or someone in your household is showing signs of the infection, ask a doctor about how to best treat it.

[h/t Snopes]

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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