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June 17, 2024

Return to Limburger

By Dan Mulhollen

Christmas 1968. As usual, my brother and I were shipped off to our grandmother's for most of Christmas vacation. This was a yearly custom our parents had instituted several years ago, apparently needing some time to themselves.

My grandmother had a small aluminum tree with a reflector a few feet away, its rotating color wheel adding festive colors to the silver-gray tree.

This was the Christmas (1968) when LBJ was leaving the White House and Nixon was ready to take his place. Apollo 8 circled the moon, sending back that view of Earth, an image truly deserving the too-often used adjective "iconic."

Again as usual, my grandmother received a fair amount of food as presents. These included cookies, candies, most likely a bottle or two of beverages good for taking the "chill" off, and an assortment of soft cheeses. Adult-supervised sips of wine and spirits were an accepted family custom during the holidays, but my grandmother's choice of inexpensive concord grape wine did have one negative effect on me, as I still think that's what wine is supposed to taste like.

But it was the cheeses that interested me the most. I had seen enough cartoons to know limburger cheese had a very high comedic value. So I wanted to try it -- and my grandmother was only too eager to let me sample this delicacy (keeping the more "respectable" cheeses for herself). But as children have a perverse ability to like things simply because they are not supposed to, I liked this flavorful, if foul smelling cheese.

Mind you, my family background played a role here. My grandmother (and my mother, for that matter) were Slovak -- rather like a less-boisterous version of Poles. They had their kishka and czernina (Google them at your own risk) to disgust the less adventurous diner. Meanwhile my dad was from Pennsylvania Dutch country with their scrapple (same warning as above). So I grew up familiar with headcheese, brain, and other not-for-the-timid delicacies. Limburger cheese was just par for the course.

Years pass, The missions to the moon came and went, LBJ led to Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. Now Christmas is pretty much just another day, the gift-giving is nice, but the childhood magic is gone. Also I had not had any Limburger cheese since that one December evening so many ago.

Yet my curiosity survived. I sometimes think about food I've eaten in the past and wonder what my reaction be to them today would be. While I can do without czernina, headcheese is tolerable. The jury is still out on scrapple and I may have to get another block to fully make up my mind. But what about Limburger?

As with almost everything else, Limburger cheese can be purchased on the web. But there is a little difference between seeing something for sale on the web and actually placing the order. I was apprehensive, it being so long since I'd last tasted it, that I had basically returned to being a Limburger virgin.

But curiosity got the better of me and I put the cheese in my computerized shopping basket and then pressed "Order".

It came a few days later, an outer box, an inner bag containing an ice-pack, and there in all its glory, a small block of Limburger.

Now the moment of truth. I took a knife and sawed through the outer packaging before it nicely slid through the soft cheese. I think the first rule here should be "Don't smell it!" -- It does smell that bad!

For those wondering, Limburger is made by smearing young cheese with a little older cheese containing the bacteria Brevibacterium linens (yes, the same microbe responsible for human body odor). This results in a well-ripened (and quite ripe) batch of Limburger.

My first reaction to tasting a small piece was: "This certainly has flavor." I also noticed a bit of spicy heat I was not expecting. Over the next few days, I finished off the block, my appreciation of the cheese growing with each sample.

While I can't say Limburger would be my first choice when visiting a cheese shop, it would probably be an impulse buy at some point. In a world where too much is processed and safe, Limburger cheese is a stinky-yet-tasty alternative to those neatly-wrapped slices you see everywhere.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-02-20
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