Millions of Americans know Thomas Edison as the perfecter of the incandescent light bulb and the inventor of the phonograph machine. But history is rarely as clear-cut as it seems, and Edison’s life is no different. Though Edison enjoyed a reputation as a man of science, he was driven, not by scientific curiosity, nor by professional ambition, but by a burning desire for his first and only true love: squirt cheese.
Young Tommy Edison’s devoted mother wanted the best for him: a fine education, a complete spiritual life, and a loving home. She raised him to respect his elders and to work hard. But she could not have known that a chance encounter with a street vendor in Cincinnati, where she had taken Tommy to attend an ELO concert, would spark a 70-year love affair with the golden, spreadable goodness that would spur her son to greatness.
The details of that encounter are lost to history, beyond the briefest words in Edison’s personal diary, written years later. “The dachsund sausage I bot that day was a mere vehicle for the ambrosia spread upon it,” he recalled. “No wineskin has ever carried such delicious nectar as that savory bottled curd.”
Edison’s discovery was fortuitous for him, and for all of mankind. Whereas he had previously intended to pursue a career as a didgeridoo player, he quickly determined that such a path would not allow him to indulge what he called his “affaires de fromage.” He set upon a new course intended to open doors beyond which lay an inexhaustible supply of the new-found delicacy.
Edison left behind the fun and games of his youth, breaking up with his garage band and pursuing science. He eventually built a new research lab in New Jersey, choosing the site for its proximity to the region’s burgeoning dairy industry. But the dozens of life-changing inventions that emerged from Menlo Park, to Edison, were nothing more than means to a cheesy end. He invented the incandescent lamp to light the inside of his cheese cellar, after complaining that fumes from his kerosene lantern interfered with the fermentation process. His phonograph, at first, was merely a personal dictation device to help him remember new ideas for squirt cheese flavors, which, by this time, he blurted out so often that his wife began to suspect he was having an affair with a woman named Camembert.
Despite his personal difficulties, Edison remained single-minded, and developed many lesser-known inventions that enhance our squirt cheese experience, even today. Before Edison, for example, serrated tips dispensed only caulk and cake frosting. He adapted the tool in a pinch, when his friend, Henry Ford, burned a dish of stuffed mushrooms minutes before the guests arrived for a posh dinner party at his Georgia estate. Ford turned to Edison, who pulled a bottle of cheese from his sock garter and improvised, spreading lacy waves of soft cheddar over two dozen crackers in Ford’s pantry. The hors d’oeuvre was a hit, and the adaptation quickly became standard.
Who knows what our world might look like, if not for Thomas Edison’s purchase of a cheese-smeared sausage that day in Cincinnati? Perhaps we would blog by candlelight. The decorative cracker might not exist. But one thing is certain: when Edison’s life was changed, all our lives were changed — by the role of squirt cheese in history.