Legend has it that before Mississippi State modernized and increased production to make it more accessible to everyone, its Edam cheese was once the subject of divorce papers.
This was 20 years ago, maybe more, and the story goes that when one couple divorced, they fought over who got the cheese that year. It was, after all, Mississippi State Edam cheese.
“You used to have to be on a waiting list for years,” explained Jay McClelland, manager of Custer Dairy Processing Plant at Mississippi State where the coveted cheese is made. “If you weren’t on that waiting list, then you didn’t get cheese. And it went for years like that.”
When the couple split, only one could remain on the waiting list. Naturally, they fought over who would get the spot. Remember, it was Edam cheese.
“It’s good cheese,” McClelland said. “I’m not tooting my own horn here, but to me, it’s the best cheese in the world. We take a whole lot of pride in it. It’s a very tedious process and we’re proud of the process we do to make it that good.”
These days, Edam cheese is not as scarce -- but it is in just as high demand.
The cheese has become a trademark of sorts for Mississippi State and the Mississippi State Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (MAFES) Sales Store, where 50-60,000 three-pound “cannonballs” of Edam cheese are sold each year -- the bulk in the leadup to the holidays as its distinctive red wax covering makes it a festive gift.
The tradition began in 1938 when Professor F. H. Herzer wanted the school to begin making a cheese that could be a hallmark product of the school’s herd of Holstein and Jersey cows. He settled on Edam, a Dutch cheese that has a mild cheddar flavor.
“Of course, I wasn’t around at that time, but he wanted something that was sort of iconic,” said Troy Weaver, manager of the MAFES Sales Store. “I guess back then, that cheese was sort of a popular cheese.”
Herzer and Mississippi State sent out for a rush order of 10 teakwood hoops from the Netherlands that were needed to form the cheese. According to Mississippi State lore, the hoops arrived just before ports closed for World War II.
That was enough for the school to get started, and it began making a few hundred cannonballs a year.
Over the years, the teakwood molds have been modernized along with the rest of the cheesemaking process. Now, the Custer Dairy Processing Plant makes about 600-800 cannonballs per day. Waiting lists are no longer necessary.
There’s still a time-honored process to it all. McClelland has overseen the production for the past four years.
The summary version goes like this: Milk produced by the cows goes into enormous vats in the dairy production plant. To that, frozen cultures are added. Then, food coloring to give the cheese the orange hue, and rennet, an enzyme used to separate milk into curd and whey, are added.
“It’ll set up about like Jello,” McClelland said.
Cutting knives are run through the mixture to separate the curds and whey, and then the mixture is cooked. The whey is drained, and the remaining solid curds are placed in the hoops that will form the three-pound cannonballs.
There’s a two-day salt bath, a one-day drying, and the wax-sealed Edam cheese is then stored and aged for three months.
McClelland and his assistant are then charged with sampling each batch of cheese to ensure that it is good enough to be sold as Mississippi State Edam cheese.
“You don’t know until three months down the road what you’ve got,” he said. “So three months, we start grading it and see if it makes the cut -- which most of it does. But sometimes we’ll have one that doesn’t quite make the cut and we’ll use it somewhere else, like in jalapeno cheese.”
The longer the cheese is aged, the sharper the flavor becomes. Most people can’t tell the difference between a three-month aged Edam and a six-month aged cannonball, but McClelland can.
Edam cheese remains the most popular seller at MAFES Sales Store, which is in the center of campus. It’s become as synonymous with the school as another Mississippi State tradition at football games.
You can purchase your own either on campus when classes are in session, or online.
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“It’s one of those things that it’s just as popular as the cowbell on campus at Mississippi State,” McClelland said. And if you’ve ever been to a game and heard the clanging cowbells, you understand just how popular that is.