Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I'll have mine on rye with a slice of onion

By Dick Hirsch

I remember the situation very well. It was a milestone in my life, the night I became a man, speaking in the gustatory sense. Realizing exactly what I was doing and the supposed risk I was undertaking, I ordered a limburger cheese sandwich on rye bread, with a slice of onion.

You don’t hear much about limburger anymore, but it once was a relatively famous variety of soft cheese, most closely associated with its supposed German background, but with a definite Swiss heritage. It was well-known not because so many people ate it, but because everyone knew about the negative side of the limburger persona even if they had never been near a slice.

To say it smells is an understatement. It reeks with a foul and penetrating odor and when people were attempting to describe an unpleasant, miasmic odor, they often observed: “It smells as bad as limburger cheese.”

The lexicographers, in a rare concession to slang, approve the use of stink in print when discussing limburger. I learned about limburger from my father who occasionally would come home with a small piece that was carefully wrapped and secreted in the rear of the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. I had smelled it on several occasions because, when exposed, it could quickly permeate the blandest atmosphere. I stayed away but I learned that certain taverns specialized in limburger and onion sandwiches on thinly sliced rye.

After years of wondering, I went to one of those locations with a friend one evening with an investigation in mind. We sat at the bar, and each ordered a beer. He ordered a ham and swiss cheese sandwich. I ordered the limburger and onion. As you can see, it was an experience I never forgot. I can assure the uninitiated that---thank goodness---it does not taste as bad as it smells. It has a distinctive flavor, yes, one that definitely ranks as an acquired taste.

It came to mind just recently when I was browsing at the cheese cooler in a supermarket. There, on the top shelf, selling for $8.99, was a 14 ounce brick of limburger, carefully foil wrapped and labeled as a product of The Cheese Factory in Blasdell, a village near Buffalo. I was intrigued and immediately wondered what it must smell like inside a limburger factory. I’ll never know unless I go to Monroe, Wisconsin, the home of what is described as the only limburger manufacturer in the country.

“We don’t make any cheese here in Blasdell,” explained Faye Hildebrand, who with her husband, Ed, owns The Cheese Factory. “We buy our cheese from various sources and sell it to retailers. We are distributors.” The couple bought the business 17 years ago and have become cheese authorities.

In addition to its distinctive aroma, Faye said, limburger retains a certain mystique that makes it a steady seller, so they usually maintain an inventory of over 1,000 pounds. The Hildebrands sell cheese to supermarkets as well as small grocers and the restaurants at private clubs throughout Western New York. They stock about 75 different types of cheese, some imported like Stilton and Cheshire from England and bleu from Denmark, but most come from domestic sources. Cheddar of various ages and degrees of sharpness are the top sellers, along with Swiss. Cheddar curds, a byproduct of the cheese-making process, also are in demand.

The Hildebrands suspect that most limburger aficionados are older persons who developed a taste for it years ago. They don’t have any firm evidence, but they believe many younger cheese eaters know its reputation but have never tried limburger.

Current buyers, serving a soft cheese, might gravitate toward brie, believing it has the strongest and most distinctive flavor. How wrong that assessment would be. Limburger outranks all competition.

For years limburger was a popular punch line for comedians, always worth a laugh. Abbott & Costello had a routine, easily available on You Tube, in which they were working behind the counter of a luncheonette. A customer orders a limburger sandwich and Abbott shouts the order to Costello: “Limburger on rye.” Costello, wary of even opening the brick of limburger tries to convince the customer to change his order to ham and cheese, egg salad, anything but limburger. Abbott insists the customer wants limburger. Costello finally shows up, delivering the sandwich, wearing a huge gas mask. Today it’s a rather lame attempt at humor, but in the heyday of limburger it must have had them rolling in the aisles.



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