The cheese on the left belongs to my friend Clare Burson. Here’s what she has to say about it:
“In 1895, my great great grandmother gave this wedge of cheese to my 14 year old great grandfather when he left his shtetl (little village) in lithuania for south africa so as to avoid conscription in the tsar’s army. for some reason, my great grandfather, charles, never ate the cheese. nor did he throw it away. he took it with him to johannesburg, where he lived with his uncles for a time before striking out on his own, fighting in the boer wars, and, with the defeat of the dutch, moving yet another world away – to memphis, tn, where he married and had four daughters.
Strangely still in possession of the cheese when he died, my great grandfather passed it down to my grandmother.
My parents discovered the cheese in the early 1970′s when my mom took on the project of refurbishing the trunk my great grandfather had shlepped from lithuania to south africa to memphis. when she opened it for the first time, she found a desiccated wedge of something resembling a pumice stone, dusty, and wrapped in a disintegrating cheese cloth.
I guess my mom gave it back to my grandmother for safe keeping. my grandmother still has it, wrapped in aluminum foil in a paper envelope labeled: papa’s cheese.”
Fascinated with the idea of an heirloom food, I spread the story of Clare’s cheese. My friend Rachel came back with this little bit of her family’s history:
“My great-grandfather brought pepper seeds with him from Italy, and we still grow the same peppers, saving seeds every year. My mom sent them away to see what variety of pepper plants they are and there weren’t any they identified them with, so they’re been classified as ‘Adolfo’ peppers, named after my great-grandfather.”
Does anyone else have a story of a heritage food in their family?
By the way, the historic cheese slice was the inspiration for Clare Burson’s upcoming album Silver & Ash. Clare and I are teaming up to present a four-course dinner concert that weaves together time, place, and the complexities of family history. You should come! For more information and tickets go here.