68: The Stinky Gift that Kept on Giving

68: The Stinky Gift that Kept on Giving

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

The Stinky Gift that Kept on Giving

The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.

~G.K. Chesterton

When our family reminisces about our favorite Christmas food, it’s not pies, cookies, or even the oyster casserole my mother used to make before oysters got too expensive. The food we remember with glee is a food we never ate: a jar of Limburger cheese.

Like families who pass around hardened fruitcake, our family’s jar of pungent cheese traveled back and forth between Pittsburgh and Ashland, Ohio for nearly eighteen years before it was finally laid to rest.

The stinky cheese story began more than thirty years ago at our rehearsal dinner in August 1979. Uncle George Fike wrapped up a jar of Limburger cheese and gave it to us as a gag gift. I grew up with his four daughters and since I was an only child we were almost like the classic book, Little Women — plus one.

Meals on the Fike farm were fun times, when my mother’s brother would sneak pickles onto our hamburgers, or threaten to feed us horseradish and Limburger cheese. None of us ever ate Limburger, so we had no way of knowing what it was like — but it sounded horrible.

After our wedding, when Rick and I moved our wedding gifts into our first apartment, we discovered that my mother had sent the cheese. We put it in the refrigerator.

“What shall we do with the cheese?” I said to Rick one day. He laughed and said, “Let’s give it back to your uncle for Christmas.”

Thus began a tradition that provided endless entertainment at every gathering of our extended family for the next eighteen years. Of course, the gift was always disguised as something nice. My husband particularly got into the creative presentation. When our children came along, they did too. Early in the fall, we would ask each other how we should wrap the cheese.

One year, the jar was inserted in various tubes of cardboard until it looked like a Super Soaker squirt gun when wrapped up. Another year, it was a gift for George’s woodshop — a handsaw and a C-clamp, with the jar of cheese wedged in the clamp. There was even the time when two fancy fishing lures hung out of the top of his gift, looking like it was going to be a new fishing rod. The reel turned out to be a jar of much ripened cheese.

This cheese always added some anticipation to our holiday fun. At some point it would pop up, such as the year my husband unfolded the decorated sweatshirt George’s wife had made for him and the cheese clunked to the floor from the sleeve.

One year, all the presents were unwrapped, and everyone sat there glumly thinking Uncle George — or Rick and I — had forgotten. Then across the room a voice boomed, “Hey, Rick, how about passing around some of that candy?” My husband plunged his arm up to the elbow and he came up with the dreaded jar. The Limburger became one of the most carefully wrapped gifts, since no one was quite sure how rancid the aged cheese had become. All it would take was one hard hit on the floor.

As my uncle’s health began to fail, my husband broached the subject. I couldn’t imagine the grief I would feel without my mother’s only brother. “When it does happen, I just hope we have the cheese,” he said sorrowfully, then laughed.

One Christmas, our presentation — complete with a personalized song — particularly delighted my uncle. We wrapped the jar in a brightly colored holiday box with a gold partridge in a pear tree embossed in gold. One of a set of twelve boxes, each box held the appropriate number of other items, from five brass rings to eleven sugar-free lozenges. My four cousins told me that the Christmas box — with the contents stored safely in the refrigerator — remained on the dining room buffet table almost all year.

Uncle George told everyone who entered the farmhouse how he was really going to “get us good” come Christmas. But life doesn’t always go the way we plan. Uncle George died of a heart attack in November that year, at almost the exact time that our daughter Elizabeth was born.

We couldn’t be at his funeral due to our new baby, but thanks to the Christmas cheese, a part of us was, indeed, present. My cousin Judy lovingly placed the cheese back in its box — as a final resting place for our Christmas tradition — and sent it into eternity with Uncle George.

Of course, the rest of us wonder if we’ve truly seen the last of the Limburger. We imagine arriving at heaven’s gate and being handed a gaily-wrapped Christmas box... filled with a pungent surprise.

~Jane Miller

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