Feb 28, 2023

PEW! American History Never Smelled So Bad!

 My family hosted many holiday and special occasion gatherings when I was growing up. Dad contributed actual kitchen-support to help prepare and host those events. Among his responsibilities were his German-heritage favorites: braunschweiger and limburger cheese. Their combined odors mark my memories of those times and even now cause my nose to wrinkle and sniff. Actually, it may have been that odiferous effect of his favorites that led Mom to hand off those tasks.

Cheeses, like other foods and beverages that involve fermentation, yeast components, or other pungent ingredients, are often evaluated by their “nose”, the strength and quality of some particular/expected odor. Limburger is meant to be a notoriously “stinky cheese”, but most cheeses reserve such an extreme description for circumstances in which they have gone “bad”. 


Sleeping Bear Press, 2023

PEW! The Stinky and Legen-Dairy Gift from Colonel Thomas S. Meacham is written by Cathy Stefanec Ogren and illustrated by Leslie Breen. It’s the lively, cleverly humorous account of an historic cheese and its impact on our country, its president, and the WHITE HOUSE itself. This picture book offers enticements and satisfaction for those with interest in American history, patriotic pride, superb nonfiction backmatter, agricultural/rural characters and settings, informative and entertaining text and illustrations, and well-balanced wordplay/punnery! 


Ogren has done a masterful job of taking on a now obscure but very successful farmer from upstate New York whose pride in his own farming community inspired a lallapalooza of a symbolic gift-- to the President of the United States! The practice of sending gifts to political leaders was not new in the early 1800s and continues to this day. This proud gentleman intended to distinguish his gift of a wheel of cheese from anything else that might gain the attention of the president and those who visited our national home. 


Several opening spreads invite readers into glorious farm scenes, then reveal his growing intentions and the ways in which cheeses are routinely made, along with the adaptations that were needed to achieve his goal—a MONUMENTAL cheese that could never be equaled! Extra attention was given to the process, adjustments, wrapping, and delivery to the president. They embarked on a lengthy journey through the waterways along the coast of the middle Atlantic states, a splendid tour with crowds lining the way to gasp and admire such an achievement. Despite my prediction that such a massive gift might be declined or distributed to those in need, it was January on the low-lying Potomac peninsula. The winter climate allowed the cheese to be prominently positioned in the cool entrance hall of the White House, and to remain in good quality for many months of nibbling and serving guests.


What happened next to the remaining mass of uneaten cheese was directly due to the warm and humid summer that followed. With no refrigeration or air conditioning, the very ingredients that produced a desirable result transformed that warm cheese into a stinky nuisance.  How they attempted to resolve this issue, and the consequences that ensued, are as impressive and entertaining as the rest of the story. 

The design of the book does not disappoint, providing a bright, large-sized format with many double-spreads to enhance the details of the story. Expansive white backgrounds form a showcase for illustrations and text layout revealing many specifics of those times and places in American history. Characters are not caricatures, and the expressions, clothing, and body postures tell little stories of their own. 


Nonfiction picture books usually offer further details or insights, resources, etc. in back matter. Some books provide content aimed at adults who might want to access or verify related content. The very best nonfiction backmatter is as intriguing, entertaining, and curiosity-sparking as the main text is for their intended audience. PEW! The Stinky and Legen-Dairy Gift from Colonel Thomas S. Meacham provides this kid-friendly approach with a page of “More To The Story” and another of “Cheesey Facts”. Don’t overlook these tasty offerings!


How this dramatic and unforgettable story (once you know it!) came to the attention of the author intrigues me. Ogren has agreed to respond to some questions about that and more, so continue to follow here to read her interview responses within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, put this new title on your want-to-read list, library hold, or in-person/online orders. (Available for pre-order HERE.)


As a Wisconsin cheesehead, I struggle to believe that some people do NOT enjoy cheese (lactose-intolerant folks and vegans are forgiven). The fact that cheeses have been around for thousands of years makes it clear that I’m not alone in appreciating cheese. But tastes vary. Non-cheese folks are entitled to their own responses and opinions about cheese. In this case, though, no cheese-eating or -sniffing are required when reading this remarkable and colorful picture book about agricultural pride, celebration of our nation, and a presidential gift that was immeasurably memorable! You won’t need to hold your nose while reading, but you may be shushed if reading in a library due to the clever word play and punchlines that might have you laughing out loud. They are woven throughout with deft skill and timing to balance intriguing information with humor. Not a stinker among the puns!

Others have been chiming in with reviews and interviews. I think you'll  enjoy their insights and reflections here:

This Little Birdie BlogFebruary 10, 2023

Release date:   March 15, 2023   Preorder HERE.

Cathy Ogren also contributes to a blog featuring reviews and interviews with authors of children's books.  Check it out here: WRITERS' RUMPUS.

1 comment:

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.