November 1992

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For A Real Rochester

Thanksgiving Day


Robert G. Koch

On Turkey Day, most of us eat heartily in thankful celebration of the state of our lives. A few holdouts may prepare Cape Cod turkey (that is, salted codfish) creamed over spuds, but most will gobble a buxom gobbler and mounds of the other succulent fruits of our affluence.

The turkey—Benjamin Franklin's candidate for a national symbol—has long been well known to us as a proud, vigorous, at times obstreperous but always hearty creature; therefore, old-time New Yorkers often dramatized a person's poverty by describing the unfortunate to be "Poor as Job's turkey—couldn't raise more'n three feather and had to lean against the barn to gobble."

But the extravagance of our Thanksgiving spreads also comes naturally in our abundant state. Take, for example, the Great Cheese fashioned by Colonel Meacham of Sandy Creek, Oswego County, in 1835. "That autumn," according to folklorist Harold Thompson, "all the milk of one hundred and fifty cows was turned into curd and for five successive days piled into a great hoop until a noble cheese was formed weighing fourteen hundred pounds.. Forty-eight gray horses drew it in procession to Pulaski, where the hoop was removed and the cheese proceeded to Oswego. On November fifteenth, amid the booming of cannon, Ontario's port bid farewell to the Colonel's masterpiece, which advanced via canal and river to Syracuse—Albany—New York. At Washington the gallant Colonel presented it, in the name of the Governor and the People of the Empire State, to Old Hickory [President Andrew Jackson], who had sufficient respect for cheese to preserve it until Washington's birthday, when he ordered it cut into pieces and invited all the men, women, and children of the Capital City to partake of the Colonel's bounty. Congress adjourned; the White House was thrown open. Led by [Martin] Van Buren of New York, [Daniel] Webster, the foreign ambassadors, and other dignitaries, the crowd advanced."

An eye-witness describes the scene:

"It was cheese, cheese, cheese. Streams of cheese were going up the avenue in everybody's fists. Balls of cheese were in a hundred pockets. Every handkerchief smelled of cheese. The whole atmosphere for half a mile around was infected with cheese"

Prof. Thompson continues; "For the Colonel all the rest of life was anti-climax. He made and sent several little cheeses of seven hundred pounds apiece—to Vice-President Van Buren, to [New York] Governor Marcy, to the Mayor of New York City. For these he received only thanks and reputation. But when he sent a similar gift to the Mayor of Rochester, the magistrate of the Flour City sent back an immense barrel of his product weighing nearly a ton. Several years later, when the flour was all used, the Colonel built a vast Agricultural Hall for fairs—a frame building much too large for any possible use in that section but not too big for the Colonel's purpose: into the front of the hall was built the head of the Mayor of Rochester's barrel. And the Colonel rested from his labors."

As you rest from yours, remember those who need to lean against a wall to gobble, and do return even the smallest of favors with an extravagant Rochester "thank you"!

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
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