If you didn’t think cheese can be a window into culture, family history and identity, then think again.
From this week’s New Yorker:
This is the story of a hundred-and-seventeen-year-old piece of cheese. The cheese has lived in an apartment in Brooklyn for the past year. Prior to that, it travelled the world, or more of the world than the average piece of cheese has travelled. The cheese is small—four inches long, one inch high—and it is an orangey-brown color. A person who comes in contact with it might not recognize it as cheese. Its shape more resembles that of a heart or a teardrop, or something that you would want to have a hazmat suit on to touch. Its owner, Clare Burson, a Tennessee-born singer-songwriter by night and a docent at the Tenement Museum by day, is aware that the cheese evokes visceral reactions. When she gives tours at the Tenement Museum, she sometimes cites the decades-old bagel that was discovered in the building when it was renovated, in the nineties, which disgusts people. “You think that’s something?” she then adds. “I have a hundred-and-seventeen-year-old piece of cheese!”
Burson, who is thirty-four, recounted the cheese’s history the other day at her apartment in Cobble Hill, where she lives with her husband, a criminal-defense attorney, and their cat, Kreplach. She carried the cheese carefully from her bedroom to a table in the living room—she is reluctant to travel any greater distance with the cheese. “I worry about it,” she said.
The cheese was a going-away present for Burson’s paternal great-grandfather Charles Wainman (née Yehezkel), upon his emigration from Lithuania, around 1893, to Johannesburg. For reasons lost to history, he never ate the cheese but kept it in a trunk that travelled with him while he worked as a trader among the Zulus, and then when he fought, on the Dutch side, in the Boer Wars. About 1904, the cheese travelled to Memphis, via Leeds, in England, and Galveston, in Texas. Wainman opened a grocery store, and then, after the Great Depression, was a security guard. He died in 1944. The cheese was stored away until 1971, when Burson’s mother discovered it in the old trunk.
Burson first learned of the cheese in 1999. She had just returned from Germany, where she was on a Fulbright, researching identity politics and the Holocaust. (Her maternal grandmother, born in Leipzig in 1919, escaped Germany on the morning of Kristallnacht, and ended up in Memphis.) When Burson returned home to Tennessee, her paternal grandmother, Jojo, presented her with some more history. “Apropos of nothing, Jojo brought out the cheese,” Burson recalled. “She said, ‘Have I ever shown you this? It’s a cheese!’ ”
At that time, the cheese was wrapped in tinfoil and stored in an unmarked envelope. “Every time I went to visit after that, I checked on the cheese,” Burson said.
In 2007, Burson went to Lithuania, hoping to learn more about the history of the cheese—her grandmother knew only that it came from a place she called Pushville. In Vilnius, looking at a pre-Holocaust map, Burson surmised that Pushville was Posvol, which is now Pasvalys. She discovered that no one there spoke English except for a guy at the local agricultural museum. He took her to see the site of the old synagogue, now a housewares store, and then mentioned that one of the town’s main industries is cheese. In a supermarket, she found cheese that looked a lot like her cheese, if it were a hundred and seventeen years younger: it had the same dolloplike shape. The cheese was a fat-fermented variety called Svalia, for the local river. According to a modern producer, it is “a tasteful component of sandwiches” and “goes very well with beer.” Burson bought a small chunk of it, but it did not make it to Tennessee for her family to taste. “I took it back to Riga, and I basically ate cheese and crackers in the hotel room for the next two days,” she said. “It was kind of nutty. It was good.”
When her grandmother died, in 2009, the cheese went to Burson. She flew down from New York to take possession. When she got to the house, the cheese was not in the box on the shelf in the closet where it usually resided—her aunt Linda had put it in the freezer. “I was a little freaked out about it,” she said. The cheese flew back on a Delta flight to LaGuardia. It breezed through security, probably because it smells only when it is close to your face. “It smells like old cheese, stinky feet, that sort of thing,” Burson said. Her husband was fully supportive. “He takes issue with me having a lot of stuff,” she said. “But I wouldn’t exactly call the cheese a tchotchke.”
Last summer, Burson took the cheese on a subway to Manhattan, where Tenement Museum employees helped her seal it in a jar. She feels the cheese is preserved now, which pleases her landlord. But Burson worries that it seems less like a relic and more like something in a lab. “I’m a little conflicted about it,” she said.