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Lewis & Clark’s Big Cheese

August 11, 2006

Asked what cheese he would be if he could be any cheese in the world, Brandon Wiebe takes time to ponder his answer. After all, a serious question deserves a thoughtful reply.

“Well,” the 20-year-old sophomore finally begins, “I think it’s important not to confuse this question with ‘What’s your favorite cheese?’ Everyone wants to be liked. But I want to try and shake things up, contribute positive change, get better with age, and develop strong friendships with those around me.”

Hence, his choice is a Rogue River Blue–offbeat but never alienating, he explains, “complex but not confusing.”

Wiebe is the founder and president of the Lewis & Clark College Cheese Club, which hosts biannual tasting soirees that draw upwards of 100 attendees in search of cheese snacks and enlightenment. Last spring, Wiebe and a dedicated cadre of campus cheese aficionados organized the first-ever Pacific Northwest Symposium on Cheese, held at the College.

There are other distinctive undergraduate organizations at Lewis & Clark, including clubs dedicated to Legos and vaudeville, but the cheese club is special. Robbie Fung, director of student activities, appreciates the group’s mission because it connects the campus to wider community issues such as agriculture and sustainability.

“It’s cool because it’s different,” Fung says. “I don’t think it’s going to go away.”

Wiebe’s fascination with all things cheesy started as a way to ward off the anxiety and boredom of his senior year at Woodside High School in the Bay Area. He and a buddy hit on the idea of starting a cheese club. They knew next to nothing about the subject, could barely tell the difference between brie and bleu. The whole thing was really just a joke.

“I don’t think we took ourselves seriously,” he says. “We just wanted to see how far we could take it.”

I want to try and shake things up, contribute positive change, get better with age, and develop strong friendships with those around me.Brandon Wiebe

To the friends’ shock and delight, 50 students came to the club’s first meeting. Soon, the students became rather unlikely media celebrities, profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle and featured on Food TV’s Unwrapped. Somewhere along the way, the joke turned into something more, and Wiebe turned into something of a connoisseur. After graduating from high school, he spent the summer working behind the cheese counter of a local gourmet grocery, where he broadened his knowledge of cheese and refined his tastes.

When Wiebe arrived at Lewis & Clark, he fully intended to devote himself to academics and leave his activism behind. But when he told some of his first-year friends about his high school exploits, he says, they talked him into starting a cheese club on campus. The first campus meeting was a stinker, with just seven students showing up. He tried again, this time advertising a cheese “party” during reading week just before spring finals. This time, 150 turned out. The next party, during the fall of his sophomore year, was a hit, too.

Last spring’s cheese symposium featured a “Cheese 101” workshop and a panel discussion with local artisan cheese makers and mongers. The group pondered such heady questions such as “Why are some cheeses better with age?” “When do we know that a cheese has gone bad?” and “What makes a cheese beautiful?”

“I was impressed,” says panelist David Schiffelbein, co-owner of Curds & Whey, a local gourmet cheese shop. “I would have stayed in college longer if we’d had a cheese club.”

When Wiebe considers a piece of cheese, he sees more than a smelly hunk of curdled milk. He looks at cheese as a liberal arts major should, from a variety of perspectives. He considers the science that went into making the cheese, the history of the cheese. He’s an encyclopedia of cultural references, from G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese,” to Wallace & Gromit’s penchant for Wensleydale. He can quote poets from Homer to T.S. Eliot on cheese and laughingly recalls Monty Python’s famously dry-witted sketch about the cheese shop with no cheese for sale. (“Stilton?” “Sorry.” “Emmental? Gruyère?” “No.”)

There is something slyly subversive about Wiebe’s proselytizing. It’s not that he doesn’t take cheese seriously–he does now, even if he didn’t in the beginning. But part of his ambition is to rid cheese of its snobbishness. “The enjoyment of epicurean delights is not solely for the snooty,” he says. “Cheese should be fun.”

He also sees cheese as a powerful unifying force, and marvels at the wonderful diversity of the students who come out to the Cheese Club parties.

“You get all these students who might not otherwise get a chance to socialize coming together with a common passion for cheese,” he says.

Asked to name his favorite cheeses, he admits to being partial to Cabrales (a Spanish blue made of cow, goat, and sheep milk) and Epoisses (an “incredibly stinky cheese you can smell clear across the room”). The latter, he notes, was “Napoleon’s favorite cheese.” Which is nothing to turn your nose up at.

So what’s next for the Cheese Club? Wiebe, an Eagle Scout, wants to get the group involved in a community service project–perhaps passing out cheese sandwiches to the homeless.

Still, Wiebe is about much more than just cheese. An English major, he’s also active in student government and is spending the summer working as an intern for Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office in Washington, D.C. He plans to be on the College’s overseas study program in Scotland next year and has arranged for succession of the club presidency. He’s ready to move on to the next thing.

But he still can’t escape his notoriety.

On a recent visit to Curds & Whey, he was warmly welcomed by Schiffelbein.

“Hmmm. Let’s see,” Wiebe pondered, his eyes widening at the array of delights on display–tangy Stiltons, sharp Manchegos, caramelly Goudas. “What haven’t I tasted before?”

“You tell me,” Schiffelbein responded with a laugh. “You’re the cheese guy.”

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.

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