I asked the woman at the motel desk how I could find the big cheddar.
She replied, “You mean the big cheddar replica?”
For a moment I thought, “Why does the World’s Largest Talking Cow [Chatty Bell in Wisconsin] get to be a real cow, but the World’s Largest Cheese has to be a mere replica?” But I didn’t dwell. Maybe the clerk was a vegan. I had made my friend Anna, a sociologist, drive a couple of hundred miles out of the way on a 2,500-mile trip to see this roadside attraction, so I wasn’t worried about local semantics. I was worried that Anna might be making unflattering field notes about me and my cheese obsession, but I kept that to myself as well.
The real World’s Largest Cheese was a 34,951-pound cheddar displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair. Made in Wisconsin, it was transported to New York and displayed in a large trailer. I knew that the cheese—known as “The Golden Giant”—was eaten at the fair, but I had read that a monument to the Giant still stood in Neillsville. I had wanted to see it since the ’80s. The notion of the World’s Largest Cheese resonated with me, even before I became a cheesemonger.
While driving through the miles of Wisconsin highways, interrupted only occasionally by small, quaint towns, I daydreamed that we would arrive and be warmly welcomed by Wisconsinites with family histories related to the mammoth cheddar. Stories such as “My cousin got married in front of it four years ago because she felt like it was more relevant than the church she grew up in.” Or “My grandfather lost an arm during the milling of the curds that made the original cheese. But the finished block was so beautiful that he never regretted it for a minute.” I expected excitement, pageantry, and civic pride to be evident around a commemoration of the world’s biggest cheddar.
In retrospect I may have had unreasonably high expectations.
I approached, anticipating that I was about to cast my eyes on the monument to cheese that hardworking American cheesemakers deserved. Instead, what was housed in a beautiful, glass-sided trailer painted with “Original World’s Largest Cheese’” was not a replica of a cheese at all. It was a replica of the large crate that was used to transport the Golden Giant to the World’s Fair.
It was a wooden box.
Anna looked at me, squinting to gauge and quantify the level of my defeat. Would cheese fanaticism be a new article or a lively class discussion? I spent the next couple of hundred miles in the car apologizing for taking us so far out of the way for that. Truthfully, I was disappointed, but not just for our wasted day. Huge, campy replicas of farm animals, produce, and wild beasts litter our nation’s highways. Couldn’t some cheddar lover cut a truck-size Styrofoam block and spray-paint it orange to represent the cheese people?