On cheese and the general

Find the general

Find the general

The general in this case was de Gaulle, who famously complained in 1962: “How can you govern a country in which there are 246 kinds of cheese?”1

I happened to mention this to my friend Gaby as he brought out the cheese, after the main course but before the dessert, as is the custom here.

“Wait a minute,” he said disappearing into a wardrobe. He came out waving a small envelope.

“I’ve got something to show you,” he said theatrically.

Out of the envelope he pulled a battered circular piece of cardboard. The red cow on a deep blue background was instantly recognisable but the style was very dated. The lid of a box of Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) cheeses, dating to the 1950s, I thought.

“Yes,” he confirmed the date. “But look at it carefully and you will see General de Gaulle.”

I could see that the lid had been defaced. But le grand Charles was in hiding.

General de Gaulle hidden in a Vache Qui Rit box

General de Gaulle hidden in a Vache Qui Rit box

Gaby turned the lid round, pushed it with a finger, and a section popped out. There he was: de Gaulle with his big nose, big ears, with military stars on his collar, and wearing a képi.

De Gaulle hidden on a cheese box lid! How did he get there? Gaby didn’t know, but he did say that la grande muette (the big silent one, the nickname for the French Army) had spoken to the manufacturer. In consequence the label had been changed.

Had an artist deliberately hidden de Gaulle in the face of the cow? If not, who had discovered him?

I investigate on the Internet. Since the invention of Vache Qui Rit cheese in 1921, the picture on the boxes has been updated every 5 years or so. The box I had seen was used from 1955 to 1960, but this particular cow’s head first appears in 1924, when de Gaulle was still an unknown. So the creative artist theory is ruled out.

Although De Gaulle had a leading role at the end of the Second World War, afterwards he reluctantly  maintained a low profile. Times changed and he became Prime Minister in 1958 and then President from 1959 to 1969. So our ingenious cartoon probably dates from 1958 or 1959. Was it two graphic artists from Lyon, or a bored travelling salesman who made the discovery?

In English we might say that the general was a “big cheese”. For the French he was “une grosse légume”, not to be confused with “un gros légume”, a vegetable in both senses of the word.

A recipe for Vache Qui Rit soup from Veronica’s Recette du Jour

4 courgettes
5 or 6 portions vache-qui-rit cheese
chicken stock, or water plus stock cube
salt and pepper

Dice the courgettes and the cheese. Melt the butter in a pan and gently cook the courgettes in it for a few minutes. Then just cover with stock or water and add the cheese and the optional stock cube. Stir to dissolve cheese. Cover and cook till the courgettes are tender. Liquidise, season to taste, and eat, hot or luke warm, or cold.

C’est vachement bon!

1 This was quoted in Newsweek, October 1, 1962 according to The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (Columbia University Press, 1993, p 345). Numbers besides 246 are often cited in very similar quotes; whether these are misquotes or whether de Gaulle repeated the same quote with different numbers is unclear. [source Wikipedia]

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