All that, with cheese on top
Invented in 1987, the Cheesehead is making a fashion statement at Super Bowl XLV
ST. FRANCIS, Wis. -- The guy from the phone company had to install two extra lines last week just to keep up with the demand. The work force at Foamation, Inc., was doubled, to 20, with three shifts, and the UPS and FedEx trucks were backed up to the loading docks pretty much 24/7.
Ralph Bruno -- a thoughtful, angular man dressed in green and yellow -- is deliriously happy, from both a fan's and an accountant's perspective, that his Green Bay Packers are playing in Super Bowl XLV. The problem is, things at his modest factory a few miles south of Milwaukee are getting just a tad squirrely.
"We've had to ration the cheese," Bruno says sadly, shaking his head. "We're trying to take care of our best customers, but it hasn't been easy."
Twenty-four years ago, Bruno, wielding a double-edged turkey slicer and a dream, created the first Cheesehead. After fortifying his courage with a few beers in the parking lot, he wore the cheddar-yellow, wedged-shaped headpiece into County Stadium for a Brewers game. More than anyone on earth, Bruno has helped turn what was once a derogatory term for Wisconsinites (said to be coined by folks in Illinois) into a source of unabashed pride. The ultimate head cheese has been seen all around Dallas and Forth Worth this week, an in-your-face shout-out to all those snide Bears fans back in Illinois.
Super Sunday Special
- Want more? See Greg Garber's quest for the Cheeseheads. Watch a special 4-hour edition of Sunday NFL Countdown at 10 a.m.
The Steelers have their Terrible Towel, of course, but guess where it's manufactured? In Baraboo, Wis., naturally, by Packers fans.
The classic Cheesehead -- which isn't licensed by the NFL -- weighs about a pound, has 25 depressions or "holes" and measures about 14 inches on each side. A large will run you $20, with the medium $13 and small $11. But those are catalog prices; like game tickets in Texas, by the weekend scalpers could send Cheesehead prices soaring to double or triple their face value.
The Foamation factory store, in a quiet neighborhood of condos and across from a park, isn't advertised anywhere. But after a local news story last week, fans drove through substantial snow and carried out a dizzying array of Cheesehead products by the armload.
Bruno and his staff were exceedingly patient while an ESPN crew spent several hours on-site filming the harried operation. As they packed up, Bruno asked a favor.
"You guys are heading downtown?" he began tentatively. "Would you mind running a few boxes over to the Wisconsin Cheese Mart?"
Daryn Colledge, the Packers' guard, was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, and played at North Pole High School. Somehow, despite that relatively cheese-free environment, he developed an appreciation.
"I love all cheeses," the 308-pound offensive lineman admitted. "That's probably why my shirts look so bad on the weekends. The aged cheddar's one of my favorites, and I tend to find it at every restaurant. I'm known as the guy on O-Line dinner night who orders the cheese plate. Little blocks of cheese, nicely prepared, fruit, dates, a little bit of salami on the side.
"We're much more sophisticated than we look."
The "Terrible Towel"
- Before Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, Greg Garber examined the origins of the Pittsburgh Steelers' "Terrible Towel."
A least when it comes to cheese. Last week, in an interview room under Lambeau Field, an ESPN camera crew treated Packers players to a variety of samples from Henning's Wisconsin Cheese in nearby Kiel. No aged cheddar for wide receiver Donald Driver -- he hankers for something more basic.
"And why I say this," he explained, "is because this is the greatest country in the world, America. I've always loved American cheese. It's going to melt, it's going to come off good, and if you mix it with a nice piece of ham and bread you got you a good meal -- and some potato chips.
"Sometimes I just eat cheese just to be eating cheese."
When Driver was drafted in 1999, he saw his first Cheesehead waking through the airport in Green Bay. It was a picture of the wrestler, Goldberg, who was smiling and wearing the standard badge of the Packers fan.
"Now you see people wearing Cheeseheads all the time," Driver said. "I think the fans' love is exactly what the organization stands for with the tradition behind that. They don't have a problem with showing their character. That's the biggest thing, your character, because if you don't have a problem wearing the Cheesehead, then no one else has a problem with you."
Said cornerback Charles Woodson: "I don't think I could live if there's no cheese. I'm literally a Cheesehead.
"If we win the Super Bowl, I'll wear one. I'll wear it as long as they want me to. As long as you put champion on the side of it."
Creating a market
Like so many of history's "Eureka!" moments, the birth of the Cheesehead was largely a random event.
Bruno, who spent five years as an apprentice pattern-maker, was reupholstering his mother's couch one day in 1987 when the idea first flashed through his brain. He was proud of his Wisconsin roots and, hey, he liked cheese, so why not? He deftly carved a wedge out of some leftover polyurethane foam, then crafted a number of fairly convincing faux holes with his sister's wood burner. When the smoke got too thick, his mother chased him out of the house.
After the cheddar-yellow paint had dried overnight, the Cheesehead's first public appearance was in the parking lot at a Brewers-White Sox game. Note the Chicago subtext; Bruno had read some of the Chicago newspapers, which he said referred to the Brewers and their "Cheesehead" fans.
"I pull it out of my brown paper bag, and I put it on, and all my baseball rotisserie buddies give me this look of horror and kind of scatter out of view," Bruno remembered. "But a girl comes running up and asks me, 'Can I try that on? Can I see that?' I hand it to her and all of a sudden, next thing you know, I can't get the hat back from my buddies."
Brewers outfielder Rick Manning was photographed in the dugout by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wearing a Cheesehead and that sparked local interest. Bruno quit his $18.75-per-hour job and began to attend sporting events with a trash bag full of homemade Cheeseheads. People, of couse, ate them up.
"I just had to put something on my head that said, 'Yeah, I am a Cheesehead,' " Bruno said. "It was like charting new land. There was nothing like that out there."
Bruno owns the trademark on Cheeseheads, which are still made one at a time in Bruno's factory. The ingredients are a proprietary secret, but basically liquid polyurethane is mixed with a hardening agent and blended briefly. The two chemicals react and reach a temperature of 125 degrees before being poured into a mold. Four minutes later, the Cheesehead emerges, the same orange-yellow color of American cheese so many of us ate growing up.
Bruno's vision, purists are at pains to point out, is actually a compilation of three cheeses, borrowing its shape (one-sixth of a wheel) from Gouda, color from cheddar and holes from Swiss.
While the Cheesehead is the flagship item in Bruno's empire, the hole-riddled cowboy hat is the second-most popular item -- and expected to be the runaway best-seller this week in Texas. You can also purchase a cheese sombrero, fez, crown, bowtie, football, beer cozy, as well as the newest items, cheese earmuffs and the Vince Lombardi-influenced fedora.
Considering, the enormity of the invention -- this is, after all, the Midwest equivalent of Edison's lightbulb or Bell's telephone -- you might expect to find the original Cheesehead in the Smithsonian, or at least the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Actually, it is wrapped in a white plastic bag in Bruno's hall closet.
Last week, he brought it into work, where most employees saw it for the first time. It has held up remarkably well. The holes are a little crude where the foam was burned and you've probably seen the pale yellow color in exposed seat cushions. Bruno posed with it proudly.
"Cheese is comfort food," Bruno said, smiling. "It's like glue that holds everything together."
Curious ... and kind
Today, Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy is the largest family-owned dairy in Wisconsin, with 4,600 cows. Last week, 400 of them were lined up in one of John Pagel's barns, which is the length of three football fields. While the cows were munching on a home-grown mixture of corn, alfalfa, soybean and hay, vapor streamed in plumes from their nostrils, reminiscent of those terrific NFL Films shots of the Packers on the sideline at Lambeau Field.
"It all starts with the cow," said John Pagel, who took over the farm from his parents in 1980. "One-hundred percent of our milk goes to make cheese."
Perhaps that's why the largest image on Wisconsin's commemorative quarter coined in 2004 is the head of a cow, one of about 1.2 million statewide. In a poignant before-and-after juxtaposition, its nose is almost touching a wheel of cheese. Cows aren't particularly smart, but they are curious and kind. And, in America's Dairyland, they are milk machines.
Pagel's cows eat about 115 pounds of feed each day and drink 35 gallons of water. They are milked three times a day and produce about 10 gallons of milk. The logistics are daunting, but a spectacular cow carousel makes it possible. Seventy-two animals are milked simultaneously; they wait their turn to be hooked up to automatic pumps, then obediently step off when the eight-minute ride is over and their load is lightened. Six tankers, carrying 6,000 gallons each, leave each day from Ponderosa (named for the ranch in the old television show "Bonanza") headed for Saputo Cheese in Black Creek, destined to become mozzarella or provolone atop your pizza.
There is, for the visitor, an overwhelming stench of, well, cow byproducts. This, too, is dispatched with ruthless efficiency. The methane digester converts manure into enough electricity to power the sprawling farm, as well as 800 homes in the community.
"I love cheese," Pagel said, with feeling. "I had cheese on my egg sandwich this morning, and we might have a cheeseburger for lunch. Tonight for supper, we'll have a little wine and cheese.
"People don't know this, but the No. 1 eating-cheese-day is Super Bowl Sunday. Especially this Super Bowl Sunday."
A real life-saver
Frank Emmert, Jr., of Superior, is a Wisconsin folk hero and to this day, cynics suspect, an urban legend.
On Thanksgiving weekend in 1995, Emmert attended the Packers' victory over the Browns, then flew home from Cleveland a week later with his flight instructor, Baron Bryan. The weather was bad, and they were low on fuel, but they decided to take their four-seat Skyhawk Cessna 172 on a direct route over Lake Michigan.
"The clouds split and, before you know it, we were icing up really bad," Emmert remembered. "One thing led to another, and we lost our engine. So we did what our training taught, flew it dead ahead and took out all the trees. You try to hit the tops of the trees, they release energy.
"I lost my right wing, saw the trees coming down. You don't want to hit the panel or the windshield. So, that's when I assumed the position."
That's when Emmert, sitting in the passenger seat, bent forward and pulled the Cheesehead, which he had been using as a pillow, over his face. The plane cart-wheeled a few times then quickly disintegrated, leaving a debris field of more than 100 yards.
The Federal Aviation Administration photographs are harrowing. The only item visibly intact is Emmert's bloodied Cheesehead. The impact shattered his right ankle and left his body covered with bone-deep cuts and scratches. His head, miraculously, was unscathed. Emmert, a jovial man who is prone to the bad pun, and Bryan, who wasn't seriously injured, wound up in St. Michael's Hospital in Stevens Point.
"The FAA are the ones who credited [the Cheesehead] for saving my life," Emmert said. "They said I might never walk again."
He wound up telling his saved-by-a-Cheesehead story to Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" -- David Letterman was steamed -- and to Geraldo Rivera. Sales of Cheeseheads soared. When the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI a year later, Bruno's business exploded.
"A lot of people thought it was a publicity stunt by Foamation," Emmert said. "But I didn't know the Cheeseheads back then."
He does now. Emmert, in a delicious stroke of karma, is still doing his part to promote sales. If you see the Foamation cheesehead van driving around Dallas this week, Frank is the guy behind the wheel.
The moral of the story?
"Everything," Emmert said, laughing, "is better with cheese on top."
Roger Krohn, master cheesemaker (that's what it says on his business card), still gets very excited when the subject comes up, which is quite often.
"We take in approximately 1.4 million pounds of milk a day at this plant," he said. "We turn that into about 120,000 pounds of mozzarella every day. That's enough to make 120,000 pizzas every day."
Krohn, whose father oversaw a small cheddar plant beginning in 1960, is the quality assurance manager at Trega Foods in Luxemburg. Wearing a white lab coat and hairnet to match, he takes a camera crew through a comprehensive tour, stopping at one point to extol the many virtues of cheese curds. Krohn is a veritable encyclopedia of cheese knowledge. Did you know:
- Wisconsin leads the nation in cheese production, at about 25 percent, a total of about 2.5 billion pounds.
- Some 92 percent of Wisconsin's milk goes into cheese-making, at 138 facilities, with more than 600 varieties. It takes 10 pounds of milk (more than a gallon), to make a pound of cheese.
- The average American eats an average of 36 pounds of cheese each year -- still a good distance behind most European nations.
And there's quality to go along with all that quantity.
"We have a reputation for fine cheeses," said Krohn, whose many award-winning medals can be seen in the factory store. "Wisconsin continues to dominate worldwide competitions, no matter where we are or where the judges are from."
Krohn isn't merely a Green Bay Packers fan, he is a part-owner with four shares. The Packers, the only non-profit, community-owned franchise in all of American major-league sports, have 112,015 shareholders, representing more than 4.75 million shares.
"That's what's unique about Wisconsin and the way the Packers organization is set up," Krohn said. "There is no one owner sitting in a box that cameras pan to and show. It's everybody sitting there. They are owned by the people.
"If you travel and you say you're from Wisconsin, they say, 'Ah, you're a Cheesehead.' Most people are proud to say that."
- Transportation Security Administration worker: Do you have any sharp objects in that bag?
Traveler: Uh, no, I don't think so.
TSA worker (coyly): Are you sure? Maybe some ... cheddar?
Traveler (wincing): Ohhh.
Even the cheese humor, inflicted regularly at Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport, is on the dry side. Ken McNulty, owner of the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, is another example.
McNulty's expansive shop is in downtown Milwaukee, right across from Mader's, the famous German restaurant where the schnitzel and spaetzle are superb. He pours a glass of zinfandel from Sonoma on the butcher block bar and slides over a plate of cheddar, aged for 11 years.
"A nice fruity zinfandel, with a strong, acidic cheddar," he said, closing his eyes and savoring. "It's an amazing combination."
Indeed it is. The flavors fairly pop on your tongue. McNulty likens Wisconsin's burgeoning cheese industry -- the boutique outfits are bringing back some of Europe's more obscure bacterial strains -- to Napa Valley's wine culture 30 or 40 years ago.
Invariably, cheese seems to make people happy. According to McNulty, there is a scientific reason for this.
"It produces amino acids that increase serotonin in your brain," he said. "So it actually gives us the happiness factor, just like dark chocolate."
That one-pound wedge of faux cheese, he said, also has a chemical effect.
"When you put the Cheesehead on you're a different kind of person," McNulty explained. "You're not that mild-mannered businessman or woman you were all week long. You're a character, just into the moment."
Ralph Bruno has shipped Cheeseheads to all 50 states and 30 countries. He has received photos of folks wearing them in places like the Arctic Circle, and in Africa, on the head of a tribal chief. He says the plant in St. Francis produces about 100,000 pieces per year, which would stretch 300 miles, all the way from Green Bay down to Monroe, if placed end to end.
All from a piece of his mother's couch.
"I try not to think about things like that," Bruno said, "because I might wake up. It is really like something you see on TV."
Bruno won't be attending Super Bowl XLV. He's staying behind to build the inventory should the Packers win.
John Pagel, the dairy impresario, already has tickets and is headed down to Dallas on Friday. He's got a Packers shrine in his conference room, including signed jerseys and helmets from Brett Favre and, going even further back, Bart Starr. He will wear his Cheesehead proudly.
"When you grow up in Wisconsin being a Packers fan, it's like a religion," Pagel said. "There's nothing more important on a Sunday -- besides church -- than the Packers.
"What's funny is that Bears fans that are sitting in their living rooms and watching now, are going to be eating the cheese that we make," Pagel said. "They'll be watching the Packers win the Super Bowl."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
SUPER BOWL XLV
Super Bowl Central | Super Bowl blog