Thursday, October 18, 2012


Rats in the Cheese

Henry J. Bruman, "Carl Sauer in Midcareer: A Personal View by One of His Students," in Carl O. Sauer: A Tribute, ed. Martin S. Krenzer (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1987), pp. 125-136 (at 133-134):
On one of his visits to Berkeley, about 1936, I heard Bob Hall (1896-1975) of the University of Michigan tell a story that illustrates as well as anything I know the quality of Sauer's remarkable mind. It seems that Sauer's fellow graduate students at Chicago some twenty years earlier got sick and tired of his know-it-all manner and decided to show him up. What was especially galling was that Sauer was not bluffing: he actually knew what he was talking about. It is not easy to forgive a fellow who knows all the answers. But it is almost impossible to forgive him when he usually turns out to be right. So they decided to gang up on him. They would read up on some geographic topic in advance, each taking a particular aspect, and they would spring their knowledge on Sauer someday when they were all together and so show him up and teach him a lesson.

After some discussion they decided the topic should be cheese: regional varieties of cheese in different parts of the world, including sources of milk, methods of manufacture and marketing, consistency and flavor of finished product, and so forth. So they divided up the topic, each did his separate research, and the moment came a couple of weeks later to display their new knowledge in Sauer's presence. One man casually started talking about some reading he just happened to have done about cheddar cheese, about the differences among New York, Wisconsin, and Oregon varieties, and how they all related to earlier forms of cheddar in England. Then another chimed in, adding what he just happened to know about other English cheeses, mentioning the Derby, the Cheshire, the Lancashire, and then the Stilton, the noblest of them all, which is aged longer than the others and owes its magnificent flavor in part to the development of a green mold. Then the third student began with a discussion of mold cheeses in the continent of Europe, blue cheese in Denmark, Roquefort in France, Gorgonzola in Italy. Then the fourth gave his report, and the whole ostensibly impromptu performance went on for a good half hour. Bob Hall remarked that by the time the first talk on cheddar was over and the second one on English cheeses began "Sauer's moustache began to broaden." He could smell rats in the cheese.

And then, when the group was quite through displaying their new-found expertise, Sauer began. With no preparation he talked in his careful, measured way about cheese making among the German settlers in Missouri, and how it differed from the practices of settlers in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Then he went into cheese making in Bavaria, Switzerland, and Austria, and told them all in all far more than they had discovered in their combined investigations. Well, that was it. The others were licked and they knew it. They never baited him again.

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