Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The invention of “American Cheese”.

December 11 …

The man who invented ‘American Cheese’ was born on this day in 1874 on a farm near Stevensville, Ontario. Why did this Canadian call his cheese ‘American’? Was he honouring the country that enabled him to make his fortune? Or was it some sort of ethnic slur/joke against the folk across the border from his birthplace (like ‘Welch Rabbit’ is in England? You decide which of these applied to James Lewis Kraft’s patented processed cheese - made from genuine milk solids, all pesky bacteria and mould killed, and virtually guaranteed not to spoil.

Kraft moved to Chicago in 1903 with $65 in his pocket and started peddling cheese from the back of a wagon. The problem is, the very nature of cheese makes it prone to spoilage (and this applied especially in summer in the days before refrigeration). There is a fine line between a perfectly aged cheese and a spoiled cheese and a spoiled cheese means loss of profit. Kraft was not a scientist, but he tried various ways around the problem – including canning. Shredding and heat-sterilising cheese solves the spoilage problem (or the ageing virtue, if you want to look at it that way), and the addition of emulsifiers stops the separation of fat from solid. If this mixture is then canned it will keep virtually indefinitely. This is what Kraft did – naming it ‘American Cheese’ for reasons which I have not been able to establish – and he patented the method in 1916.

Sterilised emulsified canned cheese may be absolutely consistent and may keep forever, but a lot of folk feel that it is bland and – well, just ‘aint cheese. Kraft’s timing however was perfect. One organisation that does not care a hoot about flavour but cares a lot of hoots about durability in food is the military. Six million pounds of his cheese ended up in ration packs during World War I; soldiers developed a taste for it (or at least a familiarity with it), it remained relatively cheap during the Great Depression, and Kraft’s name became famous, or to some – infamous, on account of its synonymity with “not cheese”.

Here is an American World War I recipe that uses cheese – no cheese specified, but presumably “real” as it is grated. It would have been a perfect recipe for a meatless day, and comes from Farmers’ Bulletin 487.

Corn and Cheese Souffle.
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of chopped green pepper
¼ cupful of flour
2 cupfuls of milk
1 cupful of chopped corn
1 cupful of grated cheese
3 eggs
½ teaspoon of salt.
Melt the butter and cook the pepper thoroughly in it. Make a sauce out of the flour, milk, and cheese; add the corn, cheese, yolks, and seasoning. Cut and fold in the egg whites beaten stiff; turn it into a buttered baking dish and bake in a moderate oven 30 minutes.
Made with skimmed milk and without butter, this dish has a food value slightly in excess of a pound of beef and a pound of potatoes.

Tomorrow’s Story …

An Enchanting Christmas Pudding.

Quotation for the Day …

If antiquity be the only test of nobility, then cheese is a very noble thing … The lineage of cheese is demonstrably beyond all record. Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)


Kuri said...

Near Ontario? So was he born in Quebec, Manitoba, New York, Michigan??

The Old Foodie said...

OOPS! looks like I might have upset my Canadian friends. Lack of poor proof reading by this Aussie. It should have said "Near Stevensville, Ontario" Now fixed.
Very sorry
From TOF, in Brisbane, which is not near Ayers Rock, or Sydney.

Mudhooks said...

"Welch Rabbit"?

It is Welsh Rabbit... Or, as it is actually called "Welsh Rarebit".


The Old Foodie said...

Hello mudhooks. 'Welch' was how that particular cookbook author spelled the word.
Linguists believe that the original, and therefore correct word was 'rabbit', not 'rarebit', and the Wikipedia article you indicated agrees.
I have written previous posts on Welsh Rabbit; they are at