On this day in 1804 the president of those United States of America, Thomas Jefferson was presented with a mammoth loaf of bread. And lo, he and a whole bunch of others did eat it. You’re probably wondering why he was presented with a mammoth loaf of bread, well wonder (loaf) no longer, I shall tell you the story of the bread, some cheese and a bunch of fossils. Sit back and
at least try to enjoy.
A few years previously, in 1801 to be precise, the skellington of a woolly mammoth had been found in New York. Mr Jefferson was well into a bit of the old science and – as a member of the American Philosophical Society – happily helped them raise funds to complete the archaeological project started when they found the furry elephant. All well and good you might think, but the president’s opponents, the Federalists, thought he was a daft old bugger and the money being spent on the project was a frivolous waste. Why it was any of their business – it wasn’t public money – is anyone’s guess, but they wanted to ridicule their president and soon had their chance. In 1802, a group of Baptist women from Massachusetts sent Jefferson a 1,200lb lump of cheese to thank him for his support of religious tolerance. The cheese, they said, represented the reality of his claim that one day the US would outstrip all of Europe when it came to agricultural production.
How did the Federalists use this to mock their president? They christened the cheese, “The Mammoth Cheese”. Oh my sides, what wit, what eloquence, what a silly bunch of fuckers. Even better, the Federalists were aghast to find that instead of making the American public laugh at the president they all loved this use of “mammoth” and took to it like a baby to the teat. Butchers started labelling their bigger joints “mammoth” and grocers sold mammoth pumpkins and loaves of bread. Suck on that you unimaginative phalange of fuckers!
The cheese was lasting and lasting and lasting and so it was that on March 26th 1804 there was a mammoth luncheon party, sponsored by the Senate to raise funds for a naval war in the Barbary states. A navy baker wheeled in the mammoth loaf, with the remainder of the mammoth cheese, along with a mammoth side of beef and lashings of mammoth bottles of wine and champagne. Jefferson approached the loaf, took out his own pocketknife, cut the first slice of bread and the party began. It started out as quite a sedate affair as befitted a public fund-raising party, but the lashings of alcohol soon took their toll and according to some who attended it rapidly descended into a drunken, ribald affair, which makes a huge (or should that be mammoth) change from today’s state affairs.
And so, dear readers, that is the tail in all its mammothry. A little dull, to be perfectly honest, but a nice piece of trivia to drop into the next dinner party you attend. Especially if you wish to send your fellow diners into a post-prandial coma.
Today was the birthday of a man born 100 years ago in 1911. He went on to be America’s finest playwright and was known as Tennessee Williams.
Williams was born in Columbus, Missouri and when he was eight the family moved to St Louis. He had an older sister, Rose and a younger brother. His mother was a total southern belle type and his father was pretty much an alcoholic travelling shoe salesman
(Ted Bundy!). Williams was close to his sister and their maid Ozzie, he feared his father and found his mother’s hysteria and neuroticism difficult to deal with. In later years, Rose was institutionalised because she had schizophrenia, but still remained an important part of Tennessee’s life. In fact his whole dysfunctional family turn up in his plays, along with him, time and time again. Rose is the disabled sister in The Glass Menagerie, his mother is almost certainly Blanche DuBois, he is Brick and his father is Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Elia Kazan said of Williams that “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”
This was unfortunate for him. He was beset by depression throughout his life and a dependence on alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines. The more successful he became, the more he doubted his ability to produce work worth reading or performing. His doubts became a self-fulfilling prophecy and after the sixties he never produced anything close to the brilliance of his previous output. But the genius he gave us before that was so rich, so varied, so lush and wondrous that the only tragedy is his own doubt, not the falling off of new and beautiful gems to set before us.
Tennessee (born Tom, he took Tennessee – the home state of his grandfather – as his professional name) was rarely a happy man, but he was a man full of talent and warmth. He loved and cared for those he was close to, he gave of himself and he gave a lot; plays, screenplays, novels and short stories are there for all of us to enjoy. If you’ve never seen any of his work, you’re missing out and must make amends immediately! Happy birthday Tennessee Williams. I discovered you in my teens and have adored you ever since. You were way better than that Arthur Miller and that is a stone cold fact!