Category Archives: Cheese

The United States of Cheese

I try to push the boundaries with this simple internet blog. I don’t shy away from the hard stories, those ideas that are difficult to grapple, as I think is evident with my previous post, on grape juice. This time, in keeping with that spirit, touching the untouchable, taming the wild beast, climbing the looming peak of humanity, I’ll be talking about cheese.

According to researcher Bonnie Leibman at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Americans eat 23 pounds of cheese a year, which is up from eight pounds a year in 1970. There are other rather predictable aspects of the United States’ food report card, if you are wish to take a brief foray over to that wonderful PDF. (Namely, we do not receive a single “A”, and receive “C” or lower in Dairy, Grains, and Sweeteners.)

Because cheese is a very broad topic – a Google search for cheese elicits 392 million results – I feel the need to narrow the topic down, mostly so my fingers don’t fall off whilst I type. So, specifically, the thing I would like to discuss, is American cheese.

In my searching the internet for things to write about cheese, I stumbled upon the incredibly amazing website cheese.com. Their hope page is literally covered with cheese, and it simply makes me happy. One of the prominent picture links on their home page, as those of you who clicked the previous link are now discovering, is American cheese. Like most things in America, American cheese started out as a mixture of other cheeses. (In America, we’re not so good at being entirely original, but are excellent at making great things out of other original things.)

The website Mental_Floss starts out an article on American cheese with the line, “While the they had plenty of other culinary talents, the Native Americans were not a cheese-making people.” Cheese is a very Anglo-Saxon food. American cheeses were originally made in ones home, to be consumed in ones home. They were never fancy, or moldy, as many fine cheese are. Keep in mind: at this point to say, “American cheese” is simply to say, “cheese made in America.” America was still a pretty new thing back then. This type of cheese, colonial American cheese, was actually cheddar. Cheddar cheese is sturdy, and versatile, and could handle the climate of the colonies, which had much greater seasonal extremes than in Mother England. By the 1790s, the American’s were exporting their cheddar cheese back to the Queen’s Island, where it was known as “American cheese”.

In 1851, a man Jesse Williams created the first American cheese factory. This, my dear readers, was a game changer. Jesse Williams was to cheese as Steve Jobs was to computers. He did things differently. He had dreams. He didn’t take no for an answer. He was voted out of his own company by former Pepsi CEO John Scull…wait…no…nope, that was only Jobs. In its first season of operation, Williams’ factory produced 100,000 pounds of cheese. Williams’ turned American cheese into the unofficial official cheese of the American marketplace. It was known as simply yellow cheese, or store cheese. (It was still known as American Cheddar in England.) And, at this point, it was still edible.

Then came along that asshole Kraft. Now, the Swiss had actually been toying with processed cheese before Kraft ruined cheese for America. Like the good Swiss citizen that he was, Gerber was just trying to make cheese as technically magnificent as he possibly could. Processed cheese has a longer shelf-life than regular cheese, it melts better while staying in one piece, it is easy to mass produce, and costs much much less. On paper, all these things look good. If you’re business is making cheese, all of this stuff seems great. Regular cheddar has especially fun properties when melted. This has to do with the way that the proteins and fats behave when heated. Process cheese does not do this, probably because it is a terrible terrible food product. I guess sometimes the things that look good on paper just don’t cut it when put to a practical test, such as, can I eat this food thing.

In other cheese news, due to a twisted turn of events, the yellow color of cheese is probably fake. Cheese used to be made from whole milk. The fat in whole milk gave cheese a yellowy-orangish hue. When the people who made cheese figured out that the fat in milk could be used to make other things, like butter and heavy cream, the began scraping the fat off of milk before they made cheese with it. With the fat went the color. To maintain the original hue, and convince buyers that they were buying regular cheese, the makers added yellowish-orangy coloring. And we’ve been being duped ever since.

I originally started writing this for National Cheese Day, which I think is sometime in February, and then I lost steam. Or, perhaps, we can say that the occasion is the 100th anniversary of the patent which was filed for the process of making process cheese – the patent (US 1186524 A) was filed on March 25, 1916, and published on June 6th of the same year – but I really don’t want to give Mr. Kraft any more time in the spotlight.

I suppose we can just leave it at this: We’re in the middle of an election year. Everyone seems to be ready to rip out everyone elses’ throats, and it wouldn’t actually surprise me if that was tomorrow’s headline. We’ve forgotten how to compromise. We’ve forgotten how to argue with each other, as in civil debate. Arguing does not involve physical violence. Instead of a loyal opposition, we have cartoon characters running for president. Yet, despite all of that, we have cheese. We have our own cheese, born out of a Swiss cheese maker who set out to make something better, combined with methods that came with us across the Atlantic, and turned into a quintessential part of American cuisine.

We have a cheese, as old as America itself, still around after all these years. There are important differences that we have, we that make up the cheese, like the Colbies and the Cheddars that are usually used to make the actual cheese. We have to move forward, lest not we founder in the backwash of some guy eating a cheeseburger. We have to move forward and rid ourselves of some cheeses that really have no place here. Those cheeses that are really just mold, but call themselves cheese in an attempt to be eaten. Except blue cheese. You can stay, blue cheese. Our cheese-nation is being thrown into the frying pan. And not on two pieces of white bread with butter. We are being heated by our issues. But because of the process patented by Mr. Kraft 100 years ago, we do not break apart when melted. We stay together, the Colbies and the Cheddars, and we grow together, and it is progress. That is what I have to say about cheese.