Sorry for the silence over the past few days. I’m just back from that testament to environmental irresponsibility, Las Vegas, where the American Association of Geographers held its annual meeting. I’m not sure which bright spark thought it would be a good idea to hold the meeting in Vegas, but given the number of seriously angry geographers walking about the halls of an extraordinarily depressing casino hotel, I suspect they’ll be out of a decision-making position fairly soon. I’ll be back with the second half of our “Of Cheese and Nightmares” tale soon but in the meantime, here’s a tiny literary quip to tide you over. Eliot, famous for the phrase “Never commit yourself to a cheese without having first examined it”, among others, commonly used cheese as a parodic device to confront the self-importance of English ‘culture’. This letter’s no different.
From the TS Eliot Society newsletter, No. 51, 2003.
TSE ON CHEESE: A NEWLY DISCOVERED LETTER
Editor’s note: Dr. Erwin Welsch, our indefatigable collector of Eliot books and researcher into lost and forgotten Eliot documents, sends along the following:
There is a fun, tongue-in-cheek letter from TSE that is not cited in Gallup; it is listed in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society.
Sir – Mr. David Garnett (reviewing Mr. Osbert Burdett’s book [i.e. A Little Book of Cheese, London: Gerald Howe, 1935, which was intended “to aid the reader in the choice of cheese”]) is in error in supposing that there is no tolerable American cheese. There is a delicious Port Salut type made by Trappist monks in Ontario. But Trappist monks, like their cheese, are the product of “a settled civilisation of long standing,” and I fear that there is little demand for either. Americans seem to prefer a negative cream cheese which they can eat with salad: and American salads are barbaric. I wish Mr. Garnett would take the initiative in founding such a society as he suggests; and I for one would be glad to buy a Double Cottenham, if he could put me in the way of it.
Oxford and Cambridge
T. S. Eliot
Pall Mall, S. W. 1
The letter is in The New Statesman and Nation, December 21,1935.
I can only think that Eliot is referring to Oka, which was actually produced by Trappists in Quebec, and not Ontario. Oka was one of those bedrock cheeses for me. I can remember stopping in at the monastery on one of our camping vacations when I was a kid. One taste and I was hooked. Long before the current Quebec cheese renaissance, it was Oka that hinted of a wider cheese world just waiting to be explored. For those of you who missed the pleasure of tasting this cheese in your youth, it’s a modified version of the Port Salut recipe developed in the 17th century by Trappist monks in Brittany. When the order was expelled from the Abbaye de Bellefontaine in Bégrolles-during the Third Republic, a group of the brothers were invited to settle in Quebec and set up shop at the Lake of Two Mountains near the village of Oka. They called the property La Trappe and developed an agreement with the Université de Montréal, to create an agricultural school called the Oka Agricultural Institute. For years the Abbey supported itself by running the school and making Oka, but in the mid-1970s they sold the production rights to an outside interest. Agropur – a large Quebec dairy conglomerate that has altered the recipe and is making different versions of the cheese – now produces it. It’s still good. But not as good as I remember tasting when I was a kid. The monks have actually just moved out of the monastery into a new property in Joliette and the original abbey has been taken over by a heritage foundation with plans to turn it into a hotel.