While the world was focused on the World Cup and national soccer supremacy this summer, the most intense competition of any sort may actually have been occurring off the coast of Washington state at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. It was there in July where cheeses from Vermont and Wisconsin went head-to-head in a “cheese-off,” with the winners getting bragging rights and the losers getting angioplasties.
I am honestly not sure why so many Americans watched the World Cup, which was only going to wound our national pride, when we could have brought our vuvuzela horns to Whidbey Island and cheered on our cheddars. (The vuvuzela is a plastic horn that sounds like a giant, flesh-eating killer bee; it is every mosquito that has kept you awake on a hot summer night.) After all, Americans consume a whooping 34 pounds of cheese per person every year, though that figure is misleading: If you remove me from the data, the number falls to about seven. I like my cheese.
The “cheese-off” was triggered by Lt. Scott Maynes, a 27-year-old Electronic Counter Measures Officer aboard EA-6B Prowlers. (To put that in English, he is sort of like the guy who sits behind Tom Cruise in the movie, “Top Gun.”) Maynes grew up in Springfield and South Burlington.
“It started when I made the bold statement that Vermont cheddar was far superior to Wisconsin cheddar with no real facts to back up the statement other than my wholehearted belief that I was correct,” Maynes told me. I like that kind of thinking: After all, I have built my career as a columnist spouting opinions founded on nothing.
Maynes is the only Vermonter in his squadron — the World Famous Rooks — but there are several members from Wisconsin and Michigan. So, Maynes’ boast was fighting words. Another member of the squadron was going to Wisconsin on leave at the same time that Maynes was returning to Vermont. They each agreed they would return with a couple of different cheddars from their home state for a competition.
The cheese-off had five judges, all squadron officers. (Maynes’ commanding officer recused himself from the judging because he hails from Wisconsin.) It was a blind taste test, with the cheeses carefully cubed. Almost all of the squadron was present.
Now, Maynes’ Vermont cheese entrants had to endure a lot on their way west. Maynes and his cheese had a nine-hour layover at JFK Airport on a scorching hot day. And while cheese is dairy built for travel, some cheeses handle heat like that better than others. For instance, when I was 18 years old and working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in New Hampshire, I bought some cheddar at John Harman’s country store in Sugar Hill as a Father’s Day present for my dad. It didn’t cross my mind to have the store ship it. I just took the brick they had wrapped in wax paper, dropped it in a big envelope, and mailed it to my dad in New York. Father’s Day, of course, is a June holiday — and that was a blisteringly hot June. To this day my dad says it’s amazing that the mail carrier was willing to deliver the dripping, oily brown envelope. The ink on the label had smeared so badly that his name was almost unrecognizable.
In any case, Maynes wonders if his Vermont cheddars were handicapped as a result of the JFK layover. It is, in his opinion, the only possible explanation for what happened next. They cut the cheese … and Vermont lost. The Wisconsin winner was more crumbly than the Vermont runner-up, and Maynes thinks that may have been a factor.
“The result didn’t change anything for me,” Maynes said. “I still believe Vermont has the best cheddar in the world.” (I do, too.)
I don’t know if Maynes has plans for a rematch, but I hope so. I’ve spoken on Whidbey Island a couple of times in my life, and given my love of cheese, I wouldn’t mind going back.
And, of course, I’d bring the vuvuzela.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on August 15, 2010.)