Monday, September 24, 2012

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Limburger Cheese

     There’s a good chance that the reaction upon reading the topic of today’s post may be different depending on the reader’s age.  Middle aged or older people will probably nod knowingly, and think about a joke involving bad smells, while younger readers may be left wondering what limburger cheese is.  Because limburger cheese, while still with us, is definitely dated.  People still eat it, especially those who are either German or have German ancestry, but its popularity has long since peaked.  Limburger also had a boom period in popular culture in the early 20th century, appearing in television shows (like “The Little Rascals” and “The Three Stooges”), cartoons, books, and comics, often as an easy, what-a-rank-odor gag.  Famed aviator Charles Lindberg was even teased with the nickname “Cheese” from neighborhood kids while growing up.
     This cheese originated in the 18th century, in the Duchy of (obviously) Limburg, which at present is located within Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.  It starts off as a harder, crumbly cheese, but after several months it becomes a soft, even spreadable cheese, which is the form that’s most commonly sold.  Typically it’s served as a sandwich, often on rye bread with onion.  Here in the States the hotbeds for it are in the Midwest, in Wisconsin and Ohio.  I first had it in the mid 1990’s at an outdoor barbecue.  I remember a friend of mine had brought her two-year-old son, Tyler, and his reaction to it was a minor freak-out, followed by wails of “Stinky feet!  Stinky feet!”  (Needless to say, he wouldn’t eat any of it.)
     The odor is the dominant trait of limburger cheese.  Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird.  There are many other strong/repellent smelling, but commonly eaten foods, like say, onions, or garlic, or fish, but these aren’t considered to be as extreme.  And proponents of these foods either enjoy the smell, or else usually think it’s not that bad, certainly not foul enough to offset the good flavor of the food itself.  But limburger’s kind of different—I think that even the biggest fans of it would admit that the smell is pretty horrible.
     We all laughed at the time, but it turns out that little Tyler’s words were fairly accurate.  Because the bacteria which ferments limburger is Brevibacterium linens, which is also present on human skin, and is partially responsible for body odor and especially foot odor.  A 2006 study found that malaria mosquitoes are equally attracted to the smells of both the cheese and human feet.  This study was given an Ig Nobel Prize, which is a Nobel Prize parody given out to the most unusual or trivial achievement in scientific research of the year.  Although later, as a result of this study people started using limburger cheese to bait mosquito traps in Africa, so limburger is actually saving folks from getting malaria.
     As I’ve stated before, my love of cheese—all kinds—almost has no bounds.  But limburger probably comes closest to testing this.  The rumors are true—the smell is awful, and hard to get around.  But, despite this, it’s not without its charms.  It’s not something I can enjoy by itself, but on a cracker it was okay, kind of pleasantly tangy.  Therefore, this is a rare case when something that reeks of death tastes all right.  But I’d advise eating it outside, or at least in a well-ventilated room.
     And Tyler, if you’re out there, I hope your first meeting with limburger cheese wasn’t too traumatizing, and didn’t give you hysterical lactose intolerance or anything.

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