Having enjoyed the hell out of Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth, I had planned to take a look at the bonkers true story of the Congressional plan to populate the bayous of Louisiana with goddamned hippos; to my disappointment but not surprise, all of the extant pieces on it were already thorough and hilarious and there wasn’t really anything for me to add to the conversation, and to my embarrassment I didn’t even realize that the definitive work on the topic, by Jon Mooallem, was the one Gailey herself referenced in the forward to River of Teeth. (Seriously go read both that book and that article, they’re both amazing.)
And so I set out to document other little-known historical weirdities, BUT WAS ONCE AGAIN STYMIED, because all the good ones are solved (and usually bummers) and the rest are boringly unsolvable, so I decided to outsource my investigation into history’s mystery’s to Twitter, and my buds came through:
Obviously all of those are great, but emu war and government cheese are the most tangible, so I decided to start there, and I’m pretty hungry but don’t know what emu tastes like, so Presidential Provolone it is.
So, this blog is a silly place, and that will never, ever change, but I really want to develop my long-form writing and research skills so I can do more than rattle off fun but flippant book reviews and soul-baring revelations regarding my secret father and the dinosaur he discovered in Montana, and in my effort to uncover the truth behind The Mystery of the Monterey Mines, I discovered that the sequence of events and circumstances that leads to any given thing actually happening is hella complicated, y’all, and in that respect this is actually a pretty perfect place to rake in some experience points; the downside is that I genuinely have no idea where the fuck to begin with this, because it starts like four times and those times are not even on the same clock, so I beg your indulgence and patience, because trust me, this will be worth it, this shit is wild, even if cheddar be mild. I actually considered doing like a Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching path where you could pick where you wanted to start, but I…don’t know how to do that, and wouldn’t know how to bring all of the branching paths back to the same conclusion anyway, so we’re going the most boring and straightforward way: chronologically, starting with The Great Depression.
I am just a humble jackass that’s read The Grapes of Wrath, not a historian or economist, but I feel comfortable saying that it’s not useful to talk about who was worst off in during The Great Depression, but to acknowledge that it was a life-shattering nightmare for all involved in completely different ways, and it is fair to say that farmers had a uniquely horrific time because for the first time since agriculture was developed as a technology so that we could have more booze, they couldn’t make a living selling literal food, not because Oklahomans had finally mastered photosynthesis but because nobody could afford to buy any. Also there was an unprecedented drought! Also the prices they were able to command had fallen back to pre-WWI levels, meaning they were unable to afford to maintain the debts they had accumulated for new equipment and land during the economic surge during WWI! Also industrialization and processed foods becoming more dominant in the market resulted in farms being just a link in an economic chain instead of one of its seats of power! It was the worst of times! And so was created the Commodity Credit Corporation, which is quite literally a giant company credit card that the USDA can use at need, and their first big splurge was to invest in the American farming economy by buying a shit-ton of everything they were growing and then destroying all of it in order to preserve the price, as some readers may remember in this godless nightmare of a scene from their own time fleeing the Sooner State with the Joad clan:
It was this act–intentionally starving people in order to support farms growing food no one could afford to buy–that would ironically lay the foundation for the Colby-Jack Catacombs the gentle reader came to hear about. Let us set this aside for the moment and fast-forward to 1948, making me the first white guy to ever pass up a chance to talk about World War II on the internet.
Britain, after a millennium of collecting every country it ever had ever heard of like so many Pokémon, “held” a “colonial mandate” in Palestine that, in the system in place at the time, gave them purview and authority over its land and immigration; naturally this was for Oil Reasons. However, that mandate was scheduled to end in 1948, and despite vocal protestations from both Palestine and Britain (albeit for different reasons), U.S. President Harry S. Truman and the United Nations proceeded with a plan to partition Palestine in order to create the modern state of Israel as a refuge for Jewish populations displaced by the Holocaust, and ya boi is absolutely not touching on any of that, although ya boi will say that present-day Israel is definitely committing genocidal war crimes against Palestine, and that the United States’ unwavering support of Israel as a nation is 100% based in the belief that Israel’s existence is necessary for the Evangelical Right’s batshit cuckoo-bananas end-of-the-world scenario. I am not even an amateur or armchair geopolitician and don’t know where it might’ve been better for the displaced Jewish people to settle–although Michael Chabon has some ideas–but suffice it to say that wedging them into a preexisting country and ignoring thousands of years of historical, religious and ethnic context has had mixed results, although it is on-brand for the United States.
The next twenty years were rough in that part of the world (as the next-next forty would also prove to be), and the topic of Arab-Israeli relations/conflict/peace was a constant beat in international conversation. (Sidenote: I always wondered what the fuck “Arab” was supposed to mean in this context since that’s a very specific term seemingly used arbitrarily; turns out it refers to the Arab League, which was formed in 1945 and consists of Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, later Yemen and as of 2011, formerly Syria.) One such conflict, called the Yom Kippur War, began in 1973, and in the long run, would prove to be the butterfly whose unknowing wing-flaps would lead to the Camembert Caves I’ve been teasing for what feels like 41 paragraphs and also a special secret thing that is so delightfully stupid I can barely stand it.
It was during the Yom Kippur War that the Soviet Union saw fit to begin supplying Egypt and Syria with military aid and arms; not to be outdone and riding the high of his overwhelming re-election victory against George McGovern, the trickster-god Richard Mephistopheles Nixon of all goddamn people ordered immediate and substantial arms-support be given to Israel. The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries took exception to this, and declared significantly decreased oil production and also an embargo on oil exports to the United States and the Netherlands, striking yet another blow in the longstanding hostilities between the Middle-East and the Dutch.
Nah, they were mad at the Dutch because they, for mysterious windmill-related reasons of their own, also supported Israel to an extent that raised OAPEC’s ire. The U.S. and those famous Dutch diesel-guzzlers decided that this was a bluff, as we do with all threats that actually exist such as climate change, antibiotic resistant bacteria and increasing levels of mental health awareness without equivalent increases in access to support and resources. I mean, there was no way to blame it on poor people, single mothers or immigrants, so what were they supposed to do?
They assumed that the potential loss of American revenue would be a sufficient deterrent; turns out ACTUALLY, a lot of people really like this oil stuff, and when you control the supply of it, and suddenly have a lot MORE of it to sell because you stopped selling it to the GODDAMNED UNITED STATES, you can sell a hell of a lot more of it to your other customers for basically as much as you want! It was a good time to be OAPEC, is what I’m saying, and the US’s backup plan was…not panning out.
Thus began the fabled 1970’s Energy Crisis which, if you were a cool teen like myself, you learned about on VHS’s I Love The 70’s, what with its long lines for gasoline and the secret thing I mentioned earlier, THE CREATION OF THE NATIONAL SPEED LIMIT! To–to conserve gas, I guess? I’m already bored of this part so we’re gonna skip ahead, you’re welcome, and talk about everyone’s favorite one-off King of the Hill guest-character, Jimmy Carter.
39th President of these United States, former peanut farmer, UFO spotter, Habitat For Humanity house-builder guy, swamp-rabbit whisperer and, for my money, the last actual Christian, in the sense of Christlike behavior. You know I love a deadpan fake lie but every one of those is 100% true; I respect the hell out of Jimmy as an individual and, while acknowledging that the Presidential job description includes “act almost completely amorally” and “definitely get people killed”, I believe he probably did his level best to minimize the human cost inherent to the job. When he departs for the Undiscovered Country, the human race will be lesser for it. SINCERITY MODE DEACTIVATED; RESUMING WITH THE FRIGGIN’ GOOFS ALREADY.
The energy crisis affected every aspect of the economy; turns out you need oil tooooooooo power the tractors and other farm equipment, transport food and goods and let people get to their friggin’ jobs, so it was a bad scene all around, and dairy prices went up as much as thirty percent. In 1977, Jimmy–the President we had who was named ‘Jimmy’, for God’s sake–was having a rough first year of his term because of the above, and activated his trap card: the Commodity Credit Corporation, y’know, from before. He used this to force-feed the economy $2,000,000,000 over the course of four years (roughly $10,000,000,000 in Year Of Some Of Our Lord 2022 money), a lot of that going to dairy farmers, just like during the Great Depression, to keep the prices they needed to charge in order to keep producing stable. The difference being that THIS time, instead of wasting billions of gallons of milk, the government decided to keep it, which meant figuring out what to do with a LOT of milk VERY QUICKLY.
They landed on a solution that offered longevity of shelf-life and versatility of result, and produced a simply obscene amount of butter, powdered milk and cheese, eventually totaling over 500 million pounds and requiring storage in refrigerated warehouses across 35 states. The trouble didn’t end there though, because it turns out if you keep dairy farmers in business, they keep producing milk, and so the question very quickly became not ‘What do we do with all this moojuice’ but ‘What do we do with these dairy products, besides store them as a defense should the lactose intolerant ever get ideas above their station’.
By this time Jimmy had left office, replaced by Ronald Reagan (the actor), leaving behind a massive (and ever-growing) stockpile of cheese of dubious quality and shelf-life and zero ideas what to do with it, with one USDA official even commenting in 1981 that “Probably the cheapest and most practical thing to do would be to dump it in the ocean,”, which is so much fucking funner than anything I could come up with that it makes me sick.
Reagan had run on an openly classist and racist campaign against ‘welfare queens’ and had promised to make cuts to, among other aid programs, the federal Food Stamps program, and decided that the poor would, instead, eat what he decided was good enough for them; in this case 30 million pounds of processed-to-hell, frequently spoiled and moldy cheese in five pound blocks, available to lower-income families and the elderly free of charge, and not counted against their government assistance allowance, to be distributed through the creation of the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program. The emergency that, mind you, he had created. Whatta guy! Fortunately for him though, his wealth and privilege would shield him from having to make use of the mental health system that he filleted and left a smoking ruin that still hasn’t recovered when his own mental health began to decline more seriously. Must’ve been nice not to be physically turned onto the street and forced to go off your meds cold turkey!
This program, and its giant fucking blocks of questionable queso, continued until the 90’s and are a source of, at best, mixed memories for those who relied on them; by some accounts that was the meltiest, gooiest shit you ever laid eyes on and made a grilled cheese that Heaven’s own commissary would serve, by others it was inedibly salty and pungent when it wasn’t literally inedible due to, y’know, the mold and such. One thing that is agreed upon, however, is that much like forcing children who receive free school lunches to use separate lines or visibly different lunch-tickets, government cheese and its receipt and place in your diet were a clear marker of poverty, and carried all the class, economic and social implications and stigma attached thereto, beloved Chris Farley sketches notwithstanding.
I mean, who am I to argue with this
The incredibly fucked up relationship between food and growing up poor has been covered by people smarter and funnier than I am, but suffice it to say that one doesn’t really get over it, and that the lasting trauma of the internal stigma of poverty that many carry into adulthood leads perfectly intelligent adults to make baffling spending decisions (and not always in the directions you’d think) for reasons that are rooted in being told that needing help, and admitting that you need help, makes you lesser, and only deserving of what your betters won’t touch, if you can even expect that much. Thank goodness that embarrassing, inelegant system has been replaced by SNAP, which–oh, shit.
Today, we still maintain an absolutely ridiculously huge stockpile–1.4 billion pounds, by a 2021 estimate–much of which does, in fact, reside in climate-controlled Missouri caves, waiting, like other monstrous entities sleeping beneath the Appalachias, for when it is needed again to make people feel bad about being poor I guess. I And that’s the story of government cheese; it was wild, and deeply stupid, and like most stories about America seems to come down to the people in charge of the government, minus maybe Jimmy Carter, trying to find a way to make the effects of poor people go away without actually having to help them. That doesn’t taste great; it’s salty, carries the tang of the artificial and seems like a better alternative could easily have been found, but it’s the taste of America, a taste that so many of us have become accustomed to, a taste that many of us have confusing nostalgia for due to our childhoods, and I think we all know what that reminds us of: