Snapshot: This Cheese is 115 Years Old

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.

6 Responses to “Snapshot: This Cheese is 115 Years Old”


  • I think you should have it tested… what secrets it must hold!!! Cool idea for the dinner, Sarah. WHat’s on the menu?

  • When my grandfather died and his children were gathering to clean out his house, they found foil wrapped packages in the back of the freezer – pieces of the family fruitcake recipe (originally from Barbados – I have the hand-written cookbook with the recipe in it). The fruitcake is a tradition at family weddings, and some of the packages went back almost 20 years. There was so much alcohol in the cake (more of a plum pudding that traditional ‘fruitcake’) that they opened them up, even the 20 year old one! and ate them all down.

  • One of my great great (etc) grandfathers was in the Civil War. He sent home a piece of hard tack along with a letter describing the process of banging it on a rock to get the bugs out before eating it. Both were saved by a long line of pack rats in my family. My mom found the hard tack while going through my great aunt’s huge collection of family history artifacts. I remember that she thought it was ridiculous to save an heirloom cracker, but I don’t know if that resulted in throwing it out or in saving it just because it was so weird. I hope she saved it! Coincidentally, this story also took place in Memphis.

  • What a great post. The idea of cherishing an heirloom as simple as a piece of cheese is very heart warming. Food is so elemental, so much an expression of our love for others.

  • Clearly, in Memphis, we don’t throw out food.

  • These stories are amazing–keep them coming!

    The dinner event, Silver & Ash, is on June 10th. I’ll be posing more about the menu in the coming days!

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