On my first flight to France 15 years ago, a little foiled triangle of Vache Qui Rit cheese was included with our meal. Of course, being pretty clueless, I thought it was hilarious that they had translated it directly from “The Laughing Cow” into French (it wouldn’t be the last time I realized it was the other way around). But aside from knowing it was a soft cheese without any “white stuff” surrounding it, like the mini-camembert I couldn’t quite eat yet, I never really knew anything about La Vache Qui Rit.
As I integrated into French life, I learned that it wasn’t culturally cool to eat “industrialized” cheese, as my Parisian roommate called it (at that time, I had actually thought myself pretty evolved because I ate Caprices des Dieux, spread on a baguette with butter, “white stuff” and all). But it’s never too late to learn something new, and today I finally discovered the fascinating and illustrious past of La Vache Qui Rit.
So I was browsing the old military artifacts in the lobby of the Service Historique de la Défense at the Château de Vincennes (military archives…yes, this is how I spend my free time). Between old medals, portraits of generals, and a few old canons was a small glass display where, from across the room, I could see what looked like an old box of La Vache Qui Rit. Thinking I could make a Spam-related army food joke, I went over to have a closer look.
It turns out that the original laughing cow was thought up by a well-known cartoonist Benjamin Rabier when he was serving as an officer in the military during World War One. He painted a laughing cow on the trucks transporting the soldiers’ meat rations along with the word “Wachkyrie”, which was supposedly to poke fun at the Germans’ own supplies trucks that were decorated with the mythical Walkyries of Norse legend (popularized in Germany by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries“).
Said in French, “Wachkyrie” sounds like “Vache Qui Rit”, which seemed to amuse the other French soldiers, including a certain young dairy farmer, Léon Bel. In fact, he like it so much that in 1921 he asked Rabier to draw him a new version specifically for his newly created soft cheese, La Vache Qui Rit. Rabier gave the original cow a new red coat and little cheese box earrings, et voila, the laughing cow was born.
Another interesting fact: La Vache Qui Rit was one of the very first trademarked cheeses in France (16 April 1921), since up until then most cheeses were still made by small dairy farmers and artisans.
La Vache Qui Rit is made with a mixture of different cheeses, including Emmental, Comté, and Gouda. Vegetarians will be happy to note that it does not contain any pork fat like so many other cheeses (in fact, it only has milk fat in it, making it one of the only Hallal-certified industrial cheeses in France).
So how does the laughing cow keep generation after generation of kids interested in eating those little triangular cheeses? With a new “look” of course. Check out the latest commercial, with a shameless remake of the Philippe Katerine song 100% VIP (warning, this stupid song will be stuck in your head all day):