Here at culture, we celebrate some seriously impolite smells: the rich pieds-de-Dieu (God’s feet) odor of a washed rind, or the powerful barnyard whiff of a raw-milk blue. But there’s a once-common cheese with a nose so strong that, even as we embrace these sophisticated stink bombs, it’s nearly been effaced from America’s culinary landscape.
Limburger – the once iconic stinky cheese of America – I knew only from cartoons. All Jerry had to do was show you the label, and you’d know that the lump he was about to stuff up Tom’s snout meant pain. Conversely, Mighty Mouse actually eats it to gain his super-mouse powers and defeat Frankenstein’s cat.
I’ve got Limburger in my roots: Mom’s from Michigan, with German on both sides of the family—Limburger being a place in the German-speaking region of Belgium. So I ask her about the cheese.
“Oh my God,” she says, “my folks would keep a jar of it in the refrigerator. Grandpa Sparky liked to eat Limburger and head-cheese sandwiches. When he opened the jar, it smelled like,” – wait for it – “vomit.” And, she recalls, “he used to smear it on radiators as a fraternity prank. Yeeeeuch.”
Naturally, I had to try it. But that’s not so easy; Limburger seems to have fallen off the radar. The jar my mom described was probably Kraft Mohawk Valley Limburger Spread, which has been out of production for about a year. I wasn’t interested in derivatives anyway; I wanted the real deal, an actual, breathing brick of it. Fortunately, I live near Formaggio Kitchen, a little upscale shop this magazine recently anointed as “the epicenter of Boston’s thriving cheese culture” (“Boston’s Bounty,” by Clare Leschin-Hoar).
So I give them a call.
“Hi, do you guys carry Limburger?”
Callow-voiced youth: “No, but we have a wide variety of washed-rind cheeses . . .”
“No thanks,” I reply. Okay, what about the excellent Wine and Cheese Cask – another jewel in Boston’s cheese crown, just down the street from me?
“Hi, do you carry Limburger?”
“Cheese lady’s not in yet. Sounds more like a Cardullo’s thing to me.”
Of course – Cardullo’s is the specialty delicatessen in Harvard Square, the source of everything you think they don’t make anymore.
“Hi, do you carry Limburger?”
“Nope. Try the Whole Foods at Fresh Pond.”
Seems obvious – our local organic supermarket, a food palace. Confident, I drive over.
“We had some last week. Don’t know when it’ll be in again. Try the Whole Foods on River Street.”
If Fresh Pond is a palace, River Street is a fortress. Still . . .
“Don’t carry it. Have you been to Fresh Pond?”
Foiled, I make my way back toward the apartment, passing the Wine and Cheese Cask en route. Lucky for me, cheese lady Linda Brown is in this time.
“Got any Limburger?”
“Y’know,” she muses, “the only place I ever see it is Market Basket.”
Now, understand – I’d just done the Cambridge foodie shopping circuit. All these places know their stuff – they keep Harvard cocktail parties stocked, and a more patrician clientele I can’t even name. Although it’s just a couple blocks away, I’ve literally got to cross the tracks into Somerville to get to Market Basket. It’s a riot, as always, because the place is cheap; most folks are pushing carts, buying tripe in bulk and laundry-soap-sized boxes of Kool-Aid. They’re here to feed their families, not a cocktail party. The sawdust on the floor is not for show, and the aisles are packed with old Italian ladies, working Caribbean mothers, and young Chinese grad students. Of course, they’ve got enough Limburger to stuff my mattress.
I get home and I chow down. It’s good as a sandwich, traditional style, with brown mustard and red onion on pumpernickel. More sweatsock than Camembert, less armpit than expected, and not barf-scented at all. Drink a beer with it, but no kissing.
As I sit there chewing, I feel a little stupid. Grandpa Sparky was a furnace salesman, not a college professor. I didn’t need to get fancy to find my cheese roots. The whole time it was right under my nose.