One hundred years ago, Limburger cheese maker Jacob Andrea of Monticello, Wisconsin gave a talk to the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. His topic was the public’s growing preference for milder, less smelly cheeses as opposed to his sharp and pungent specialty. A WCMA member offered, “I believe a little more drying would do away somewhat with the strong odor.” Andrea curtly cut that line of discussion off: “That odor is the essence of Limburger.”
Since 1911, Limburger makers have stood their ground to the point where there is but one Limburger man left in the United States—Mr. Myron Olson of Monroe, Wisconsin. They had help, to be sure, from the intractable cheese itself. Limburger’s odor—caused by a unique bacteria that decomposes it in a few months time from a fresh, bland, feta-like cheese into a sharp, stinky one that eventually gives off ammonia tones—has proven impossible to remove without dulling its taste. Still, that smell was no secret. So how did a working-class cheese, one of the most popular in America, dwindle to but one producer? Not every immigrant’s story is a happy one, and such a tale is Limburger’s.
“In a very explicit way,” says Tia Keenan, a chef-fromagere in Manhattan, “Limburger was something humble and stinky and strange that came from Europe.”
Originally from Liege, Beligum, Limburger accompanied mid-nineteenth century Germans and Belgians immigrating en masse to America for its rapidly modernizing, expanding economy. For them, it was a nostalgic, cheap saloon food. They liked it in a sandwich, with pumpernickel, spicy mustard, raw onion, and cold beer—a collection of sharp tastes
The jokes met Limburger at Ellis Island. Vaudeville comedians called it the “cheese you can find in the dark.” By the 1880s, the malaprop-laden dialect of German, Dutch, and Yiddish comedians like Weber and Fields, and later the young Groucho Marx, was dubbed “Limburger English,” whether they told cheese jokes or not. Limburger symbolized low class, “funny” immigrants.
Limburger stuck Americans as funny “ha ha” but funny “strange,” too. In Twain’s 1882 gothic parody “The Invalid’s Story,” a man agrees to take the remains of a deceased friend home by train, but is mistakenly given a pine box (full of guns). Placed near it is a package of Limburger, which the narrator knows nothing about. The smell gets so bad he and another passenger in the car try to move the crate but can’t. Instead they risk riding outside the train car in a numbing winter freeze to avoid the smell before learning it was not a dead body at all, but the cheese.
Twain’s joke echoed an odd truth about Limburger—it’s strangeness attracted the macabre. It was as if a dark, evil-smelling sprite had escaped the Black Forest of Germany and wafted its way to the New World. In 1884, a troubled woman in upstate New York tried to burn down her family’s Limburger cheese plant. In 1885, police arrested Mrs. Teresa Ludwig in downtown New York, for attempting suicide while intoxicated by leaping off Pier 1 on the North River. An Irish woman, Mrs. Ludwig complained that she had married a German who ate Limburger in their apartment and then made amorous advances while it was still on his breath. April 1895, a strike broke out at a Newark butter plant when a Swedish prankster smeared Limburger on his coworkers’ lathe, arousing anti-Swedish slurs, a fistfight, and a walkout of Swedish workers until the American apologized. 1909, Denver chemist Philip Shuch, Jr., grief-stricken over his mother’s death from cancer, swore that he would find a cure. His quest led him to the leper colonies of Venezuela, where he struck on a new idea—that the bacteria found in Limburger could act as a cure for leprosy. Shuch advocated smearing a mixture of pulped Swiss cheese, bacteria-ridden Limburger, glycerine, and quicklime on diseased skin.
Nor was Limburger welcome everywhere. In March 1902, the New York Times reported that Louisville, Kentucky’s health officer, Dr. M.K. Allen, banned Limburger and promised to prosecute any and all Limburger dealers. Determining that its bacteria made it “unwholesome,” he declared: “In fact, animal life is what makes Limburger pleasing to the taste—I mean to the taste of some people. I propose to stop the Limburger cheese traffic.” “Some people” undoubtedly meant the German immigrants who protested at his office. New York Germans and health officials who perhaps understood bacterial science better were appalled. “What do you want?” said an exasperated 6th Avenue deli owner, “When it is fresh it is bad and it has no smell. It has to be kept some time in order to become ripe that Dr. Allen, he doesn’t know anything about cheese.”
Limburger was then, and is now, an artisan cheese. It requires specific skills, knowledge, and patience to make. Today, the last Limburger-manufacturer Myron Olson uses a bacteria originally cultured in 1911, one kept in a moisture and temperature controlled, closely-monitored setting. As fromagere Tia Keenan sees it, “Limburger lost fashion during the great food migration to refrigeration, when food became ‘cleaner,’ ‘safer,’ less smelly and more sterile than ever before.”
By 1911, Jacob Andrea knew he had problems. But he could not have foreseen his cheese receiving one of the more sustained cultural beatings ever given to an ingestible substance not made of heroin. Yes, he may have known of the popular pro-wrestling villain, Limburger Samson, “The German Hercules.” He may have heard the very first Victor 78 rpm recording ever made, comedian Burt Sheppard’s monologue “Limburger Cheese” (1901). He may have seen the movie, Oh! That Limburger: The Story of a Piece of Cheese (1906), in which two boys slip Limburger into their father’s pockets, after which he is chased out of his office by his co-workers.
Still, it’s doubtful Andrea foresaw how the new media of silent films aimed at younger, modern audiences would offer up Limburger as a comedy star. They include Limburger and Love (1910) and, conversely, Love and Limburger (1913), A Strong Revenge (1913), Adventures of Limburger and Schweitzer (1914), Limburger’s Victory (1915), A Case of Limburger (1915), A Limburger Cyclone, (1917), and the Katzenjammer Kids cartoon, Down Where The Limburger Blows (1917). In Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918), the comedian plays a GI at the front who receives Limburger in a care package. He needs a gas mask to get near it, and then throws the cheese into an enemy trench forcing thirteen German soldiers to surrender. As a war hero, Limburger found one of its few positive images.
Yet on its return home, Limburger hardly received a thank you for its service. The passage of Prohibition in 1920 put a stop to the sale of alcohol and ended the tavern culture that made it so popular. Indeed, born-again preacher Billy Sunday saw it as the devil’s cheese itself, exhorting one Manhattan temperance rally: “The Holy Spirit will not live among a lot of Limburger cheese and beer cases.”
“Prohibition kind of put a stop to Limburger,” explains Myron Olson. “Limburger was always the working man’s sandwich. They would have it at noon as the Limburger sandwich at the tavern in town and wash it down with a beer They say that when prohibition first came in there was such Limburger excess that they wound up having to take it back and feed it to the hogs.”
As Limburger sales suffered, the enterprising cheese maker, J.L. Kraft of Chicago, consolidated his Kraft Cheese empire via modern processing, packaging, and marketing. He offered what we recognize today as Kraft American Cheese, i.e., mild, with no smell. Kraft’s 1928 acquisition of Philadelphia Cream Cheese allowed him to corner the market. By 1930, Kraft sold a reported 40% of all cheese in the United States and promoted it by sponsoring the popular Kraft Music Hall radio show, which featured suave crooner Bing Crosby.
Instead of Crosby, Limburger got the Three Stooges in Horses’ Collars (1935). In that, Jerome “Curly” Howard uses Limburger as a tranquilizer to calm his berserker rages of slapstick, inspiring his most famous catchphrase: “Moe, Larry, the cheese! Moe, Larry, the cheese!” In 1935, a mid-western border war erupted when Warren F. Miller, postmaster of Independence, Iowa, banned all Limburger from Monroe, Wisconsin after an Iowa mail carrier grew nauseous carrying it in his mail truck. The lowest moment came during the Lindbergh kidnapping trial. Aviator Charles Lindbergh’s toddler son had been kidnapped and murdered by German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann, and tabloids reported Limburger as the killer’s favorite jailhouse snack. When your celebrity spokesmen are the Three Stooges and the Lindbergh baby killer, you have a branding problem.
World War II pressed Limburger into service again, this time with Daffy Duck. In The Commando (1943), Daffy thwarts a Nazi general, who he dubs “Von Limburger.” After the war, science set about curing Limburger of its smell. Odorless but sharp Limburger, that Holy Grail, was confidently predicted several times by the Oppenheimers of cheese—but they failed, too. No smell meant no taste.
Instead, by 1949, cheese science advanced the Kraft “single,” uniformly cut slices for fast, easy sandwiches. What was science to Limburger? In Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), Lou Costello gets a slice dropped into his glass bubble space helmet and is trapped in it, begging for mercy—and that was about it.
Limburger hit noir bottom in the postwar 40s. In a jailhouse interview, Ohio mass murderer Richard Murl Davis spoke to local reporters as he waited to hear if he would get the electric chair. On September 17, 1948, the Youngstown Vindicator reported him ripe with gallows humor and Limburger sandwiches, brought to him by his ailing mother. “I’ll burn,” said Davis, cackling at his guard. “You come and have my last meal with me. We’ll show them how to pack it away, won’t we boy?”
By the 1950s, Limburger’s last fans bid it adieu, resigning it to its fate as a dish that baby boomers might see their grandparents eating. At sixty, literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote in his diary that it was time to quit Limburger:
One evening I drank a whole bottle of champagne and what was left of a bottle of Old Grand-dad and started in on a bottle of red wine. I was eating Limburger cheese and gingersnaps. This began about five in the afternoon—I fell asleep in my chair, woke up when Beverly came, thinking it was the next morning, and felt queasy for the next twenty-four hours. Otis told me this afternoon that a brother of his mother’s had died the next morning after a combination of home brew and Limburger at night.
Today, Limburger has dwindled to a taste for arch-loyalists and adventurous foodies for whom fromagere Tia Keenan feels “it’s a badge of honor to try foods some people might consider strange or intense.” And yet while Keenan tries for innovative pairings of foods, she too has found Limburger difficult to move past its saloon origins. “Mustard, onion, dill, vinegar, beer, caraway,” Keenan says are her usual accompaniments. “There’s something retro about Limburger which must come from our collective American cultural memory.”July 14, 2011