PULLMAN, Wash. – Who owns the oldest unopened can of Cougar Gold, Washington State University’s signature cheese?
That distinction may belong to Robert L. Russell, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in hotel and restaurant administration and business administration at WSU in 1976.
Tucked away in his refrigerator in Costa Rica are nine cans of WSU cheeses, including two cans of Cougar Gold manufactured in 1973 and three cans of American Cheddar dated 1972. They are part of a stash of Cougar Gold and American Cheddar he began buying when he came to campus in 1972. They were the only flavors available at that time, he recalls.
“I was in the hotel restaurant program and was familiar with Ferdinand’s Dairy
Bar and the creamery,” Russell said. “I always liked nice things, so I picked up one or two cans. I noticed that one had a date older than the other, so I took the oldest date.
“It just sort of became a habit. I would collect a few cans and decide to save them for a couple more years and see what the difference in taste is. Pretty soon, I had about 27 cans.”
Russell lugged 27 cans of Cougar cheeses from Pullman to Seattle in a portable ice chest in 1975 where he completed his degree work at the Seattle Center for Hotel and Restaurant Administration; the first year WSU’s hotel and restaurant management program had an arrangement for students to take courses in Seattle.
He has taken the cheese with him during a career that has taken Russell from Seattle to Bothell, California, Seattle again, and few years ago, to a suburb of San Jose, Costa Rica, where he bought a retirement home.
“For awhile, I had a small 4-cubic foot refrigerator for many of them,” Russell said, “but as I am now down to nine cans, things are much more manageable.”
What does the cheese taste like after all these years?
“The cans that I have opened have been very good,” he said, “a little bit crunchy, but it tastes like aged cheddar to me.”
Amino acids separate from the cheese as it ages, explained Eric Needham, supervisor of Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe. “It resembles salt crystals and that makes the cheese taste a bit crunchy. It has no affect food safety.”
Russell recently sent an e-mail to the WSU Creamery to find out if his forbearance has set any records.
“It’s the oldest can of Cougar Gold we’ve heard of,” Needham said. “If anyone has an older can, we would love to hear about it.”
Cougar Gold was developed at the creamery during the 1940s as part of a project funded by the U.S. government and the American Can Company to find a way to successfully keep cheese in cans. Cougar Gold is aged for at least a year and sold in 30-ounce cans, which must be refrigerated.
Each year the creamery produces 250,000 cans of Cougar Gold and seven other flavors. Eighty percent is Cougar Gold.
If you have an older can of Cougar Gold, contact the Creamery by e-mail at email@example.com.
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