The Stinky Sandwich Charlie Chaplin Loved To Hate

American history is littered with foods that seem bizarre from a modern perspective. From calves feet jelly to vinegar pie, there are plenty of culinary oddities that were common just a century ago. One of these foods still lives on as a pop culture relic. Although it was commonly eaten in the 20th century, the Limburger sandwich is best remembered today as one of the butt of jokes from Charlie Chaplin.

The sandwich was a simple construction of Limburger cheese, raw onion, and sometimes mustard on rye bread. In the early 20th century, it was a staple of working-class Americans. The cheese used in the sandwich smelled extremely bad, with some accounts comparing it to body odor.

Chaplin got his digs in at this stinky sandwich several times, including in a scene from his 1916 short "The Count," as seen on YouTube. In another instance, while playing his classic character The Tramp, Chaplin hides in a wastebasket in a family's home. The family keeps throwing out a smelly Limburger sandwich, nauseating Chaplin and forcing him to throw it out of the wastebasket. Hijinks ensue from there.

Chaplin wasn't the only famous humorist to take a shot at Limburger. In "The Invalid's Story," Mark Twain describes a man mistaking a box containing the cheese to be a coffin with a rotting corpse, and The Three Stooges used it as a prop in their escapades. Safe to say these artists left a lingering impression of how smelly the cheese can be. 

The history of Limburger cheese

Limburger was first made in Belgium by Trappist monks, and was created in the Duchy of Limburg around the early 19th century. Its roots in America trace back to the town of Monroe, Wisconsin, which remains the only place where it is still made today. Cheesemaking began in Wisconsin during the 1840s, when Swiss immigrants arrived in the area and helped propel America to become the world's biggest cheese producer. Limburger arrived here in 1867, and soon caught on; by 1930, more than 100 companies in the Monroe area produced it.

The cheese is fairly soft and spreadable, and features an inedible rind. While it might not qualify as the smelliest cheese in the world, it certainly holds its own in that category. Eaters have described its smell as similar to foot odor. This smell comes from a bacteria called Brevibacterium linens that is used to ripen the cheese. As with most stinky cheese, the more the cheese ages, the smellier it gets.

Limburger's popularity began to decline during Prohibition. Its namesake sandwich was often served with an accompanying lager at restaurants, but as beer was made illegal in that time, the cheese became less common on menus.

Eating Limburger today

Although its glory days are in the rearview mirror, you can still sample Limburger cheese if you make the trek to Monroe, Wisconsin. Despite its foul taste, Limburger is known to have a fairly mild taste. Its flavor has been described as having hints of mushrooms or red meat. The colder the cheese is kept, the more its scent will be limited; to contain the smell, it's best to keep the cheese tightly wrapped and separated from other items in your refrigerator. Failing to do this can cause the smell to leach into other items. 

If you're looking to make your own Limburger sandwich, the other items are readily available at any supermarket. All you need are some thinly sliced onions, rye bread, and some mustard (though it's optional).

After all these years, the smell of Limburger still remains its defining aspect. One cheese shop in Monroe features a large sign reading "Limburger — don't eat it with your nose." If you're a fan of stinky cheese and looking for something new, it can be an exciting novelty or a new favorite. If you're sensitive to food odors, however, it might be best to appreciate it simply by brushing up on your silent films and watching some Charlie Chaplin flicks. Want to avoid stinky cheese altogether? Stick to Buster Keaton.