The Cheese Cutting Contest

by Matthew Arnold Stern

This is one of my earlier speeches in Toastmasters. I gave this speech in the fall of 1992, shortly after one of our area speech contests.

Wasn’t that speech competition Friday night something? We saw some excellent competition, didn’t we? Well, that contest was nothing compared to a competition my great-grandfather was in. I’d like to tell you about it now. It’s an old family tale called, “The Cheese Cutting Contest”.

My great-grandfather, Solomon Sterngartz (that was my old family name), lived in a small village that is now in the Ukraine. He was a cheesemaker. He made a wide variety of cheeses, but his specialty was a cheese called oyfraysn. You probably have never heard of it, but it was very popular in Eastern Europe over a century ago. Oyfraysn was a highly seasoned, hard, yellow cheese. Its recipe has vanished over the generations, but we do know it was made of cow’s milk that had been aged for a several months, and it was seasoned with garlic, crushed onion, and other spices. It was a popular, flavorful cheese. It had one minor problem: it had some unfortunate effects on its eater.

My great-grandfather was reputed to be the best oyfraysn maker in the area. People would flock to his cheese shop every morning to get a piece of his latest batch. They devoured his cheese eagerly, even if it were at the risk of embarrassment.

One day, another cheese maker appeared at Solomon’s doorstep. His name was Boris. He had come from to find out if my great-grandfather’s reputation was deserved.

“Sterngartz!,” he said, “I’ve heard that you are the best oyfraysn maker in all of the Ukraine.”

My great-grandfather, who was suspicious of such flattery, modestly replied, “Well, some have said so. What’s it to you?”

“Listen, I’m Boris Shmelnick of Krakow. And, I believe I make the best oyfraysn in the whole Russian Empire!”

Well, Solomon always relished a challenge. He told Boris, “Well, both of us can’t be the best oyfraysn maker around. So, there’s only one way to find out who’s best. We’ll have a cheese-tasting, and the villagers can pick which cheese tastes the best.”

Boris laughed derisively. “Taste, shmaste. Sterngartz, you know and I know there’s only one way to judge an oyfrasyn.”

Solomon agreed. So the two cheese makers decided to have a cheese cutting contest.

Word of the contest spread throughout the countryside. Soon, the village was swelling with tourists who were waiting for the contest. Some even made a three-day trip from Moscow.

On the day of the competition, the villagers set up a large table in the center of the village square. Crowds thronged around the periphery of the square. In places, they were five or six rows deep.

At noon, the contestants entered the square: Solomon from the north side and Boris from the south. Each man had strapped to his back a twenty-pound wheel of his finest oyfraysn, the product of many months work. They plunked down their wheels on the table. When the men had situated themselves at the table, the village judge commanded, “Eat!”

And so they did. It took several hours for the men to consume all that cheese. By the time they were done, there was not a piece of oyfraysn left for a mouse to nibble on. Both Solomon and Boris clutched their bloated, stuffed bellies and waited for the hard yellow cheese to take effect. None of the spectators left the square. Even as the sun sank behind the thatched rooftops, none dared move from his spot and risk missing the climax of this event.

A few hours after sunset, my great-grandfather began to feel a little ill. He slowly elevated himself from the chair, and assumed a squatting position. He puffed his cheeks, flexed his knees, and waited for the discharge of relief.

When it came, my great-grandfather didn’t just break wind; he unleashed a hurricane! The shock wave flattened houses several miles away. It shattered windows as far away as Budapest. And the aroma was so strong, it melted the iron bells in the Kiev cathedral.

Boris nodded and said, “Not bad.”

Suddenly, Boris too was seized with pain. He grabbed his stomach and breathed hard. He knew his moment had come to outdo his opponent. He squinted his eyes, clutched down as hard as he could, and – ka-boom! Boris exploded! As far away as Berlin, people could hear Boris make one loud thunderclap across the countryside.

As Solomon wiped bits of cheese off his glasses, he just sat there and said, “Oy! That was some oyfraysn!”

Not long after that, Solomon boarded a ship bound for America. He took the name of Stern, and planted himself in San Francisco where our family tree took root. My great-grandfather died long before I was born. From what I’ve heard of him, he was a kind, generous man. But, no one ever invited him over for family dinners.

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