On this day in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson attends a public party at the Senate and leads a diverse crowd in consuming an enormous loaf of bread dubbed the mammoth loaf. The giant bread was baked to go with the remnants of an enormous block of cheese.
Two years earlier, a group of Baptist women from Massachusetts had sent Jefferson a 1,200- pound hunk of cheese in gratitude for his support of religious tolerance. The cheese, they said, illustrated Jefferson’s claim that North America’s superior natural resources would one day enable the U.S. to outstrip all of Europe in agricultural production.
Early Americans’ use of the descriptive term mammoth arose from the discovery of a giant woolly mammoth skeleton in New York in 1801. Jefferson, fascinated with the natural sciences, was a member of the American Philosophical Society and helped the organization raise funds to complete the archaeological project. Jefferson’s Federalist opponents ridiculed the president’s scientific side projects as frivolous. In an attempt to embarrass the president, they dubbed the giant dairy product the mammoth cheese. To the Federalists’ surprise and disappointment, the general populace embraced the term with nationalistic zeal. Almost immediately, butcher shops and markets advertised mammoth-size products from sides of veal to pumpkins and loaves of bread.
The unveiling of the mammoth loaf occurred at a Senate-sponsored March 26 party to rally support for a naval war against the Barbary States. At noon, a Navy baker wheeled in the mammoth loaf along with the remnants of the Baptist women’s mammoth cheese, an equally enormous side of roast beef and copious amounts of alcohol. President Jefferson stepped up, pulled out his pocketknife and cut the first slice of bread. According to written observations, the party quickly degenerated into a noisy, drunken affair.