The fourth hour of The Today Show on NBC Monday thru Friday features Hoda Kotb and Kathy Lee Gifford. Their "gal Friday", Sara Haines, who is a contributing correspondent and social media director for the show, grew up in my hometown of Newton, Iowa. Sara recently went back to Newton to do a report on the Maytag Dairy Farm, makers of the famous Maytag Blue Cheese. Click here to see the report as it was shown on the Today Show last week. (There is a 30 second commercial at the start of the piece.)
Haines is the daughter of Dick Haines, the former president of the Maytag Company, makers of top quality washers, dryers and other home appliances. Maytag was founded in Newton and was the economic base of the community since the early 1900's. However, in 2006, the Whirlpool Corporation completed a takeover of Maytag and a year later the company shut down the Newton manufacturing facilities for Maytag citing high operating costs. It knocked the town on its economical ass for awhile, but its been making somewhat of a comeback over the past couple of years.
Maytag Dairy Farms began in 1919 when Elmer Maytag - the son of Maytag Washing Machine Company founder Frederick Maytag - purchased farm land north of Newton. He purchased some Holstein cattle and began to produce milk for the family and the workers at the Maytag Company. The Holstein cattle that Maytag Dairy Farm used were some of the finest in North America, winning many competitions in the 30's and 40's.
In 1941, Frederick Maytag II, who had taken over the Maytag Company from his father, heard about a new process to make Blue Cheese out of cow's milk from researchers from Iowa State University. (Before, blue cheese was made only out of sheep's milk.) Working with his brother, Bob Maytag, Fritz Maytag had a cheese processing plant and brick storage caves built at the dairy farm and began to make the world renown blue cheese.
Mel Campbell was tabbed by the Maytags to oversee the dairy operation and ran the business until he retired in the early 70's. His son, Donn Campbell, took over for his father in 1973 and ran the company until his death in the early 90's. Donn Campbell, who was a great guy, forged the marketing that saw Maytag Blue Cheese become a nationwide, then worldwide, known entity.
Upon Donn Campbell's death, longtime Maytag Dairy Farm employee Jim Stevens took over the helm of the operation. Stevens was hired just after World War II doing menial jobs such as scrubbing the mold off the blue cheese wheels. In the early 60's, he was promoted to plant manager and in 1973 he was named Vice-President and farm manager. Stevens retired in 2004, just a year short of 60 years working for the Maytag Dairy Farm. Myrna Ver Ploeg took over the president's chair from Stevens the year he retired.The Maytag family held onto the dairy farm and was not part of the Whirlpool takeover of the appliance company. Today, the Maytag Dairy Farm annually makes over 1 million pounds of not only blue cheese, but white cheddar, Swiss, Edam and other varieties of cheese. Click here to see their current catalog of all the different cheese and gift packs the Maytag Dairy Farm has to offer.
When I was growing up, if you were a 5th grader in the Newton Community School District, it was a rite of passage in life to tour the Maytag Dairy Farm. Actually, I've said for years that you were sentenced to tour the Maytag Dairy Farm.
First of all, it stinks. The vat where they form the cheese emits an ungodly smell that is a cross between decaying food, an uncleansed locker room and the aftermath of a night of vomiting. When you're 11 years old, that's a smell that is permanently burned into your olfactory system. And after the tour was complete, we were given samples of blue cheese on a cracker. There was no way that a kid would eat the cheese after having to go through the tour and smelling the horrible odor and actually seeing the form of blue mold growing on the cheese. I remember knocking my cheese off into the garbage and eating the cracker. It was nearly 20 years before I finally got over how something that smells so bad during the manufacturing process tastes so damn good in its finished state.
I was just starting out as a rep on the road in 1986 when the guy who hired me - and taught me a lot about exquisite dining and foods - was completely amazed that I lived in Newton, IA, home of Maytag Blue Cheese. When I told him my story of how I wouldn't eat blue cheese if my life depended upon it because of my grade school experience, he said, "You don't necessarily eat it on its own. But adding it with other foods helps enhance the taste."
One evening, we were at a restaurant and he ordered a dinner salad with crumbly blue cheese with oil and vinegar. It turns out the restaurant was serving Maytag blue cheese. He said, "You know, this is the best blue cheese there is. You really need to have a salad like this at some point." The next time I had the chance to have a salad with crumbly Maytag blue cheese with oil and vinegar, I ordered it up. And I liked it. A lot. I've never looked back since.
Maytag Blue Cheese is served in some of the finest restaurants across North America and is known as being one of the best blue cheeses in the world. You sort of take the cheese for granted when you grow up in Newton. But when you travel around and tell people where you're from, you can tell they're a foodie when they say, "Oh, hey! Newton, Iowa! The home of Maytag Blue Cheese!" For over 75 years, the Maytag Dairy Farm has been producing some of the best cheese in the world. Instead of running away from the reality that a dairy in my hometown was world renown for the first half of my life, I've long since embraced the fact that the Maytag Dairy Farm is, indeed, a pretty big deal.