This morning I clicked on over to the Atlantic Monthly’s homepage and what did I find but an article about the history of big blocks of cheese in the White House. It turns out that two Presidents have been the recipients of enormous cheeses. Thomas Jefferson received a wheel of cheddar from a Baptist preacher in 1802; it weighed 1,234 pounds and was engraved with the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” (If better words were ever put on cheese, I’m unaware of it.) A generation later, a dairy farmer named Thomas Meachem offered Andrew Jackson an even bigger cheddar: 1,400 pounds. It left the White House stinking of cheese until the Van Buren Administration.
Such an article naturally left me with an obvious question: did Chesterton have anything to say about the intersection of politics and smelly cheese? Well, Chesterton had something to say about everything. This comes from A Miscellany of Men:
After a few sentences exchanged at long intervals in the manner of rustic courtesy, I inquired casually what was the name of the town. The old lady answered that its name was Stilton, and composedly continued her needlework. But I had paused with my mug in air, and was gazing at her with a suddenly arrested concern. “I suppose,” I said, “that it has nothing to do with the cheese of that name.” “Oh, yes,” she answered, with a staggering indifference, “they used to make it here.”
I put down my mug with a gravity far greater than her own. “But this place is a Shrine!” I said. “Pilgrims should be pouring into it from wherever the English legend has endured alive. There ought to be a colossal statue in the market-place of the man who invented Stilton cheese. There ought to be another colossal statue of the first cow who provided the foundations of it. There should be a burnished tablet let into the ground on the spot where some courageous man first ate Stilton cheese, and survived. On the top of a neighbouring hill (if there are any neighbouring hills) there should be a huge model of a Stilton cheese, made of some rich green marble and engraven with some haughty motto: I suggest something like ‘Ver non semper viret; sed Stiltonia semper virescit.'” The old lady said, “Yes, sir,” and continued her domestic occupations.
After a strained and emotional silence, I said, “If I take a meal here tonight can you give me any Stilton?”
“No, sir; I’m afraid we haven’t got any Stilton,” said the immovable one, speaking as if it were something thousands of miles away.
“This is awful,” I said: for it seemed to me a strange allegory of England as she is now; this little town that had lost its glory; and forgotten, so to speak, the meaning of its own name. And I thought it yet more symbolic because from all that old and full and virile life, the great cheese was gone; and only the beer remained. And even that will be stolen by the Liberals or adulterated by the Conservatives. Politely disengaging myself, I made my way as quickly as possible to the nearest large, noisy, and nasty town in that neighbourhood, where I sought out the nearest vulgar, tawdry, and avaricious restaurant.
There (after trifling with beef, mutton, puddings, pies, and so on) I got a Stilton cheese.