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Follow the Cheese

Herald columnist Jim DeFede's odyssey across the United States as he delivers the Virgin Mary cheese sandwich to Las Vegas.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Bye, Bye Bama 

Crossed into Mississippi right around 1,000 mile mark of the trip.

Spending the night in Biloxi.

Didn't arrive in time, however, to take the VMGCS to the Jerry Jeff Walker concert. Guess we will have to gamble instead.

posted by Jim DeFede at 10:33 PM

Testing the Virgin 

The Catholic Church is historically reluctant to accept sightings of the Virgin Mary as real without some proof that extraordinary or even miraculous events result from its appearance.

I figured I should be no less demanding.

Driving into Georgia Saturday, I decided to put the VMGCS through a little test. I have never driven through Valdosta, Georgia -- along Interstate 75 -- without receiving a speeding ticket. It is one of the most notorious speed traps on the East Coast.

As I approach Valdosta, I open the briefcase carrying the VMGCS, gently touch it for luck, and gun the engine to 90 mph. I fly through town without even a hint of a police officer in the area. Not satisfied, I turn around, so I can double back through town a second time.

This time I push it to 95. Still nothing.

I jump on a US 84 and head west for Alabama. I begin to think maybe there is something truly special about the VMGCS.

On the drive through Georgia, I catch a little hell fire and brimstone on the radio.

"We are involved in a culture war," the man on the radio is saying. "A lot of Christians don't realize it."

I soon discover the man speaking is the author of the book, "America at War."

"What has caused Americans to leave the Christian values that made this country great," the host of the program asks. "Is it the media? Is it the government? Is it the educational system? What has been the primary mover to move America from a Christian nation to a pagan nation?"

"Well, they have all played a part."

They then begin to discuss "the homosexual agenda."

Somehow on the radio, the word homosexual seems to have about 14 syllables.

When I stop for gas, I make a point of closing the VMGCS briefcase. Having gotten me through Valdosta, I wanted to keep her safe and secure.

Not more than ten minutes later, I cross into Alabama. And what do you suppose happens?

I see the flashing lights of a police car pulling me over.

"What year Cadillac is this," the officer says when he approaches my car.

On his baseball cap is the word "CHIEF," spelled all in caps. His gun belt is tucked under his big belly. He appears to be about 60 years old. He looks like a less-sexy version of Carroll O'Connor when he was doing the TV series, "In The Heat of the Night."

"It's a new," I say, handing him my license. "It's a rental."

"Oh, a rental," the chief says.

"What town is this?"

"Gordon, Alabama. Population 500," the chief says, with a heavy southern mumble. "Do you know how fast you were going?"

Before I can answer, he tells me.


"Well, you see chief. I'm on a mission," I explain. "A pilgrimage really."

"A what?"

"Did you hear about that woman who saw the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich and sold it for $28,000?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"I got it right here," I said pointing to the closed briefcase.

"You got what?"

"The sandwich."

"The sandwich?"

"You want to see it."

"You've got the sandwich?"

"I've got it and I am on my way to Las Vegas."

I open the briefcase and show it to him.

"Well I'll be," the chief says, breaking into a big smile. "How about that? You can really see her face."

Suddenly the smile disappears from his face and his eyes, narrow suspiciously. "Where'd you get it," he asks, clearly concerned that perhaps I have stolen this relic and am now trying to flee the country.

"I'm a reporter with the Miami Herald. I'm delivering the sandwich to the folks who bought it."

"In Las Vegas?"

"Exactly. So there is no need to give me a ticket then, is there?"

"No, you were still doing 85. But thanks for showing it to me."

"Okay, how about some T-shirts."

(Before leaving a friend told me about a job she had after college driving the Swiffer Mobile across the country. She said whenever they got stopped by the cops, they just loaded them up with free stuff and the cops let them go.)

"T-shirts?" the chief says. "What's on the T-shirt."

I take him around to the trunk. The new owners of the VMGCS,, gave me two box loads of T-shirts they printed with an image of the VMGCS on it along with the phrase, "The Passion of the Toast."

The chief takes two. Plus, I load him up with some VMGCS key chains.

I still got the ticket. Fine: $133.

posted by Jim DeFede at 9:21 PM

Music for the Soul 

Gillian Welch song lyric of the day:

"Oh I dream a highway back to you, Lord.
A winding ribbon with a band of gold.
A silver vision to come and rest my soul.
I dream a highway back to you."
-- from the CD "Renovator"

posted by Jim DeFede at 2:17 PM

No Curve by the Side of the Road 

Before I head out, a few more thoughts about Day One.

You can find out what happened to me in Clearwater in tomorrow's Miami Herald or by logging onto and looking for my Sunday column.

Leaving Clearwater, I traveled up US 19 through Inglis, the town that made being the Devil a crime.

The proclamation that outlaws Satan reads in part:

"Be it known from this day forward, that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis ... In the past, Satan has caused division, animosity, hate, confusion, ungodly acts on our youth, and discord among our friends and loved ones. NO LONGER!"

"We exercise our authority over the devil in Jesus' name. By that authority, and through His Blessed Name, we command all satanic and demonic forces to cease their activities and depart the town of Inglis."

Clearly this was my kind of town.

But by the time I arrived Friday night, nearly everything in town was shut down. I stopped off at a convenience store. A few kids were loitering. I now realize I am going to get strange looks wherever I go with this metal briefcase.

I ask one of the kids if he had heard about the VMGCS.

"Huh," he replied.

"The Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich," I repeated.

"Oh, the Virgin Mary, she's down in Clearwater. That's back the other way."

"No, the grilled cheese sandwich."

"I don't think they sell grilled cheese sandwiches here. They have other food though."

I decide it is late and this kid is too stupid to see what I have. I get back in the Caddy and leave. I take a county road out of Inglis toward Ocala. On the way I find a Baptist Church. The sign in front: "Jesus Grades on a Cross, Not on a Curve."

posted by Jim DeFede at 10:30 AM

And so it begins 

Snapshots from my first day on the road with the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich:

We leave Miami later than I had hoped.

Initially we head north on Interstate 95, before jumping over to the Florida Turnpike. Inside the Cadillac's CD player, Gillian Welch's haunting "Revival" album sets the tone for the trip.

"I am an orphan," she sings, "on God's highway."

My plan is to take the turnpike -- The Ronald Reagan Turnpike as it was renamed not long ago -- to I-75 and cut across the Everglades through what is commonly referred to as Alligator Alley. I then want to shoot north as quickly as possible and make Georgia by nightfall. Florida holds little mystery to me. I want out of this state. But halfway across the Everglades, I see the sign for Everglades City and I know where the VMGCS's first stop must be.

Off the main blacktop through town, there's a dirt road that leads to the Chickee Bar -- an open air dive on the water with cold beer, a pool table and decent juke box. In the distance, the sound of airboats -- loud and obnoxious and filled with tourists -- is unmistakable.

"I'll be right back, I just have to get some change," the bartender yells as she rushes by me in the parking lot.

As she passes me, she stops, turns and looks at the large, metal briefcase I'm carrying.

"Just make yourself at home," she adds before sprinting off.

Inside, the regulars sip their beers. "The bartender will be back in a minute," one of them, shirtless, says, without even looking at me.

When the bartender returns I order a coke and grouper sandwich. Before it arrives, I plop the VMGCS briefcase on the bar and ask: "Anyone here heard of the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich?"

Several of them nod.

"I've got it right here," I said. "Want to see it?"

Before I could finish snapping open the latches, a crowd started to form.

"Look at that, there really is a face in it," the bartender said.

"I never thought I'd come to a bar in the Everglades and see the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich," added Ann Rodenbeck, who along with her husband Pat, and their three kids were camping on nearby Chokoluskee Island.

"Yeah, but I don't know if it looks like the Virgin Mary," offered Vic Colemire. "I've never seen the Virgin Mary before. I mean who knows what she really looks like? Let's face it, people will believe just about anything."

I explain that I am driving the VMGCS to Las Vegas. Vic tell me that is where he is from. He drove to Florida. I ask him if he has any suggestion on where I should stop with the VMGCS.

He suggests Beaumont, Texas.

"Heart of the bible belt," he said.

"Strong moral values," I said. "That's what the Red States are all about I guess."

"God bless the Red States," declared Pat, who voted for Bush.

"I don't understand what that whole morality thing and the election was all about," said Vic, who voted for Kerry.

"Who used to have the conservative values in the South 50 years ago? The Democrats," Pat said. "Who has them now? The Republicans. The Democrats lost their base and they will never get them back. Look at the rest of the country. Who controlled the Northeast 50 years ago? The rich elites. And that used to be the Republican base. Now that's who makes up the Democratic party."

By the time my grouper arrived, Pat and Vic were arguing about Iraq and the Middle East. Meanwhile, a steady line of people came by to see the VMGCS.

"You know when you first came in here with that briefcase," Vic tells me. "I thought you might be a terrorist and that there was a bomb in that thing."

From Everglades City I drove to the west coast of Florida and up to Clearwater where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared on the windows of a bank. In the eight years since the image first appeared, thousands of people have come to see it and pray. So many people, in fact, that the bank finally closed its doors.

The land is now occupied by a group called Shepherds of Christ Ministries, an Ohio-based religious order. And while you might think that the women who tend to this land would be inclined to accept the VMGCS, they actually had a fairly negative response when I showed up and announced that I was indeed carrying the VMGCS.

"You can't bring that in here," Shepherd Rosie Reed told me. "This is holy ground."

More about my visit to Clearwater later. It's almost 3 a.m. and I'm beat.

posted by Jim DeFede at 3:10 AM

Friday, November 26, 2004

"...into the evil." 

Advise my family the VMGCS is now in my possession.

Tell them about my soon to be winning lottery ticket.

"You see," my sister chides, "you are falling into the evil."

posted by Jim DeFede at 9:32 AM

Luck Be A Virgin 

First stop with the VMGCS: A convenience store to buy a lottery ticket.

My numbers: 2-15-23-24-31-41

Estimated jackpot: $3 million

posted by Jim DeFede at 8:35 AM

The Hand Off 

"Be good to her," Diana Duyser said as she handed the VMGCS over to me.

"Keep her safe," added her husband Greg.

Locked in a metal briefcase - the combination of which only I and an executive of know - the VMGCS is now in my hands. In the 24 hours the Immaculate Consumption was on display at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida, a steady line of people came to see it.

Those who passed by debated its significance or questioned whether it really was the Virgin Mary. Most seemed skeptical but even some skeptics left open the possibility it was real, pressing lottery tickets against the VMGCS's plexi-glass case for luck.

As I started to leave the Indian casino, a couple rushed up to me. They had come to the casino specifically to see the VMGCS. I opened the briefcase to give them a look.

The woman gasped.

"It's truly amazing," she said, her hand trembling as she reached out to touch it.

"Yes," her husband said. "It's miraculous."

Standing off to the side Diana watched, a mixture of joy and fear evident on her face. "I don't know what I'm going to do now that you are taking her away," she said soulfully. "She's been with me for ten years."

Diana and Greg followed me to the parking lot where the Caddy was waiting. The VMGCS is heavier than I expected. I can feel the palm of my hand beginning to sweat.

All I can think about is that guy who follows the president of the United States around with a similar style briefcase -- only that briefcase contains the launch codes for the country's nuclear arsenal. They call it the football.

Perhaps this is heaven's football and inside I am carrying The Launch Codes to God.

posted by Jim DeFede at 8:08 AM

Thursday, November 25, 2004

The DeVille Is In The Details 

Picked up the Cadillac.

Funny, I just noticed that the word Devil is in Deville.

Probably doesn't mean anything.

posted by Jim DeFede at 7:14 PM


What Would Jesus Drive?

This is no small question.

Driving across the country with the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich is not something I take lightly. A good vehicle is critical. I can't risk breaking down and having to hitchhike. The VMGCS (Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich) could end up in the hands of some serial killer who would slit my throat and leave me for dead in the woods with my pants around my ankles.

More importantly, the VMGCS can't just drive across country in just any car.

First of all, it can't be foreign made. We need an American car for an American apparition made, let's not forget, with American cheese.

So when I called National Car Rental, I made it clear I wanted something befitting this religious icon.

"How about a Chevy Cavalier?" the rental agent offered.

"A compact!" I screamed. "For a grilled cheese sandwich bearing the image of the mother of our Lord, Jesus Christ! I don't think so."

"Okay, there's the Buick Regal," she said. "That's a full size car."

"A Buick, huh. Doesn't seem very poetic," I sighed. "This is a trip about big ideas and big themes. We are going to be exploring how God and politics and morality intersect in America today. That doesn't seem like something you could do in a Buick."

"Well, we do rent Cadillacs. How about a Cadillac Deville?"

The mere mention of the word Cadillac sent a chill up my spine. The Cadillac is what this trip is all about. A Cadillac isn't a car, it's an epiphany with a V-8 engine.

When you slide behind the wheel of a Cadillac, a feeling washes over you that you are now part of something greater than yourself.

Of course I would rent the Cadillac, I told the agent. The Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich should ride in nothing less than a Cadillac.

"What color is it?"


Pure. Virginal. Perfect.

I have the car. Now all I need is the sandwich.

posted by Jim DeFede at 6:20 PM

Waiting for the Pasteurized Madonna 

On the eve of my rendezvous with the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich, I called my family in Brooklyn to let them know I would be on the road for the next week.

"Are you insane?" my sister said laughing when I told he what I would be doing. "You are going to drive to Las Vegas with a grilled cheese sandwich?"

"It's not just any grilled cheese sandwich," I said. "It's the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich. It's special."

"Does it really look like the Virgin Mary?"

"Yeah, kind of."

"Do you believe it's the Virgin Mary?"

"Sure. Why not? Maybe. I don't know."

Religion has always been a touchy subject in our family. I was born in Brooklyn and baptised Catholic. Each Sunday I attended Mass at St. Patrick's Church and I went to St. Patrick's Elementary School.

My first grade teacher was a nun, Sister Rene. She was a slight woman but wielded a mean wooden ruler. More than 30 years later, I still have a scar on the middle knuckle of my left hand from where she would hit me with that ruler as punishment for one of my many boyhood transgressions.

There was a time, however, when I thought about becoming an altar boy. There was good money in it. An altar boy could make anywhere from $20 to $100 for a wedding or a funeral. But in the end I passed. The closest I came was sneaking into the church with a few friends and swiping handfuls of Communion wafers before they were blessed.

All through class that day my friends and I would pop them onto our tongues and laugh.

Today, I am what you would call a lapsed Catholic. The only time I go to church is for a wedding or a funeral.

My sister, on the other hand, goes to church regularly. She helps out at a local soup kitchen to feed the homeless. She plans outings for the teenage members of her church. And she organizes fundraisers for her church. This on top of being married and raising two kids.

She's no bible thumper, though. She can still curse like a drunken Marine. And last year, I saw her go postal on a cashier at a gas station who was rude. ("I'm going to kick your ass!" -- I think those were my sister's exact words as she beat on the plexi-glass booth of the service station.)

As we talked pre-Virgin Mary quest, my sister worried that perhaps I was delving into forces that were not entirely benevolent.

"This thing," she said. "This grilled cheese sandwich could be coming from a bad place."

"Well, yeah," I said. "You've been to Broward County, Florida. The place is a cultural wasteland of trailer parks and addle minded drivers."

"No, no," she said. "I mean a really bad place."

She's talking about The Devil.

"You know that 'Crossing Over' idiot, John Edwards?" she asks.


"I was talking to my priest about him," she said. "And I said, 'We don't believe in those things.' And he said, 'No, we absolutely do believe in that. We believe that he is tapping into these things. What we don't believe is that it is coming from a good place. We believe it is coming from a bad place and it's somewhere where we don't want to go.' And so that's what worries me about this freakin' grilled cheese sandwich, that it's not coming from a good place."

"But, there's no way of knowing," I said.

"If people were actually being healed by the grilled cheese sandwich," she said, "I would be a little more excited about it."

"Well this woman's life was made better by it," I said. (Diana Duyser claims to have won $70,000 at the local Indian casino thanks to the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich.)

"Yeah, but that's because she gambled and won a lot," my sister said. "That's bad. In other words it drove her to do things that were not pleasing to God."

"I have a feeling Diana was showing up at the casino anyway," I said "Besides, don't churches have bingo? Isn't that gambling?"

"Yes," she said, "and that's why a lot of them don't do that anymore. Who bought it?"

"A company called," I said. "They do online gambling. They are one of the biggest online casinos in the world."

A long silence ensues.

"Look, I'm not saying anything bad is going to happen," she finally says. "I just don't think it is coming from a good place. So be careful."


Am I about to pick up the Virgin Mary or some processed cheese demon spawn?

Am I riding with God of the Devil?

Am I going straight to Hell or to Las Vegas? And in the end, is there really much difference?

posted by Jim DeFede at 3:57 PM

Jim DeFede and Cheese

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