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By Michael Strelcheck

Recently, when reading the morning newspaper, I came across an interesting article about the “power of cheese!” Of course, being a Wisconsinite, any mention of cheese gets my immediate attention (having a long standing love affair with it). In a fascinating way cheese here is a lot like a “loaf of manna” from heaven and it has become a staple in our state’s diet. Perhaps it’s the golden color of cheese (kinda like a solidified ray of sunlight) that makes it seem so heavenly and that inspires us to include it with just about every other type of food imaginable. We find cheese sprinkled on top of foods, stuffed within and throughout them, or completely drenched by it when melted. And as if that wasn’t enough, we have developed it into a handy condiment – “string-cheese” that sprays out of a can onto anything one might desire. Cheese has also evolved into a “main course” or a standalone meal. (I can feel nutritionists everywhere shutter at the thought.) I present the world famous “cheese curd,” or the truly remarkable dish that is “deep fried cheese!” Seeing these innovations, I’m pretty sure cheese flavored drinks can’t be far behind. My personal favorite use of cheese was when, at a farm implement convention, I witnessed a massive block of sharp cheddar cheese sculptured into a large farm animal! Now that’s what art should be, something beautiful your eye can behold and your tongue can appreciate. And in this situation I did get to do just that, for right after the artist finished, he cut up his masterpiece into hundreds of pieces, stuck toothpicks into them, and handed them out to the cheering crowd. Pretty awesome! One can only wait, and imagine with breathless anticipation, what the next wonderfully weird use of cheese will be. But I digress!

The USA Today article pointed out that for many, cheese and Wisconsin are synonymous, and that every two years a competition is held, known as The United States Championship Cheese Contest, presented by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. The story points out some of the life-changing events former cheese winners experienced. I had to laugh at the location of the event for it’s held in Green Bay, WI or “Titletown,” the home of the Green Bay Packers, and in the Lambeau Field Atrium. I guess that’s only appropriate, for the Packers have been instrumental in the promotion of the cheese industry in Wisconsin, recalling that real sharp head-gear we see so many of the Packer fans wearing (i.e. Cheese Hats). Those hats, worn proudly by Wisconsinites at sporting events everywhere, have done much too solidify cheese’s high place on America’s Pantheon of Worshiped Foods.

The neat thing about The United States Championship Cheese Contest is that it attracts contestants from all around the states as well as internationally. There have been 18 champions crowned in the past and this year there are 2,303 entries from 33 states vying for the title. It’s clear that the world has come to realize the power of cheese! Richard Guiggisberg of Guiggisberg Cheese in Millersbury Ohio, believes the contest is of great value because it demonstrates that Wisconsin isn’t the only state that makes good cheese! Guiggisber is one of the largest Swiss cheese producers in the country, turning out 33 million pounds of cheese yearly! Ursula Guiggisberg Bennett was quoted as saying, “I know Richard always talks about the reason it’s such an honor to win something like this. It’s a contest of truly the best in the world. It’s been very exciting for us because most people think of Wisconsin as the cheese state.” For Katie Furhmann and Larry Hendrich of LaClare Farms in Fond du Lac County the award helped to turn an empty farm field into a 700-goat farm, creamery, cafe and retail cheese shop. “It helped us launch our business,” said Larry whose business is located about 40 miles south of Green Bay. “The industry was in its infancy (when LaClare Farms won in 2011) and people weren’t recognizing goat cheese as a highly valuable product.” In LaClare’s case the championship provided validation as to the quality of their cheese.

Perhaps the best story was that of the champion in 2013 -Mariede Penterman of Holland’s Family Cheese in Thorp, who’s aged Marieke Gouda was named the nation’s top cheese.  They began receiving online orders 20 to 30 minutes after the win was posted on their website. “The next days the phones were just ringing. On a personal note, my immigration lawyer said now would be a good time to apply for a green card on an extraordinary ability route.” Penterman’s application resulted in a green card. Amazing what a little cheese can do!

Although I never really doubted the value of cheese as a food group, these success stories makes me hopeful that people everywhere are beginning to find the true benefits of cheese. And if this little article helps promote the “joy” that cheese is – then my effort here has not been in vain. Enjoy.

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