Is the Grim Reaper gunning for Wisconsin's cheeseheads?

An advocacy group unleashes a warning about dairy -- but winds up with egg on its face

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 27, 2011 9:28PM (EDT)

There are certain culinary boundaries you just don't mess with -- beloved foods that are not just synonymous with their native lands, but a source of deep local love and pride. You don't kvetch to New Yorkers about the carbs in bagels. You don’t chide Napa Valley residents about the benefits of teetotaling. And you will pry the cheddar out of Wisconsin's cold, dead, non-beer holding hands. 

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is trying to do just that.

Led by Neal D. Barnard, the nonprofit PCRM shares similar goals with PETA: the promotion of veganism for the benefit of both health and animal rights. And lately, it's had something else in common with it -- attention-getting stunts. Where better to pick a fight than the heart of dairy country, with a big billboard near Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, featuring a cheesehead grim reaper. The sign warns football fans that "Cheese can sack your health. Fat. Cholesterol. Sodium." Don't forget deliciousness!

Cheese, of course, is to Wisconsin what suicide-inducing rain is to Seattle: a way of life. So it's unlikely that too many Packers fans driving Route 41 this weekend to watch the Super Bowl champions do their thing will screech to a halt in the road and declare, "Maybe I'll just have a Miller and some soy feta today." What the PCRM is shrewdly banking on here is the power of  location. By defiantly taking its case to the heart of dairy country with an in-your-face, "cheese kills" message, the organization knows it's sure to rile up controversy -- and spark conversation.

Sure enough, the battle lines have already been drawn. Surprisingly, though, the first retort came not from angry cheese lovers but from the company Foamation Inc. -- makers of the iconic cheesehead. Speaking to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, office manager Denise Kaminski declared, "We by no means would condone that.  We're a dairy state, for gosh sakes." She reiterated Foamation's pro-cheese stance -- and proved that there are still places in America where people say "for gosh sakes."

In a hasty display of butt covering, the PCRM's general counsel responded that, "There’s no way that anyone could perceive this as an attack on a hat. We have no intention of impugning Cheeseheads as individuals, we have no intention of impugning Cheeseheads as articles of clothing." I just want to take a step back here and remind everybody that we are talking about an image of the Grim Reaper. Brandishing a scythe and wearing cheese on his hooded head.

Absurd as the whole contretemps is, it does present an opportunity to examine our less-than-stellar American eating habits. The PCRM notes that we are eating triple the amount of cheese we did back in 1970 -- an artery-clogging 33 pounds a year. And its list of the delicacies at Lambeau Field are enough to make even the strong-stomached reach for the Lipitor: "deep-fried Wisconsin cheese curds; Cheesehead Beer Cheese Soup, made with cheddar cheese, beer and then topped with more cheese; and nachos piled with cheddar cheese and sour cream." And in a state where "one-third of children and half of adults are already either overweight or obese," all that cheddar can't be helping the public health.

But should the treats at Lambeau, as the committee has asked Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, get warning labels? And is cheese, as PCRM spokeswoman Susan Levin says, a "junk food"? Surely 65 million French people would say non. Or as Mayor Schmitt calls the whole thing, that's "kind of silly."

We live in an all-or-nothing culture. For some, that works out fine. But not everyone who savors the occasional fondue or croque monsieur is headed down the road of arterial blockage. Dairy products, in moderation, can be a reasonable source of calcium and protein. Cheese can also be one of the most beautifully crafted, deeply complex foods human beings can create. If you think understanding wine is complex, talk to someone who knows cheese.

And that's the distinction. Taking aim at "cheese" is like dissing "bread." It doesn't recognize the distinctions of varieties; it doesn't allow for the different ways in which it can be created and consumed. Which, by the way, is not a put-down on those fried cheese curds, which sound kind of amazing.

The American diet needs to be examined, and if you're living on all nachos, all the time, you're begging for health problems. But it doesn't necessarily follow that everybody driving down the road to a Packers game needs the icy finger of death wagged in their faces -- especially when many of those people make their living in the industry the PCRM is trying to shame. Scolding doesn't change minds or habits. Fear rarely does either. And though shock tactics may get publicity, do they ever really help win anyone's goodwill? Life, health and work are far more complex than a smug message on a billboard. And maybe next time the PCRM wants to get people to cut the cheese, they can start with a campaign that doesn't stink.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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