Hold on to your blue boxes and your viscous yellow liquids! This blog series will take you on a wild ride through the history, politics, science, and culture of processed cheese, including the origins of factory cheese, the rise of James L. Kraft, and the miracle of milk protein concentrate.
Cheese is a hallowed American tradition. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently affirmed that the average American eats 23 lbs. of the stuff every year. In the 21st century, many of us have turned away from the plastic-wrapped consistency of American Singles and toward cheeses handcrafted in small batches by individual dairymen and dairywomen. Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, recommends never eating anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize, and these new artisanal cheeses seem to fit the bill exactly. Yet the idyllic vision of small-batch, handcrafted cheese hasn’t been a reality for more than 150 years, and we have Jesse Williams, inventor of the cheese factory, to thank or blame.
Americans were making and eating cheese long before they considered themselves American—Puritans hailing from the well-established dairy regions of Suffolk, Essex, and Norfolk were crafting Cheshire and Cheddar since the early days of Plymouth Plantation. By the 19th century, American dairies and farmsteads were selling their cheese in England, the West Indies, and throughout North America, and by 1850 were producing up to 106 million pounds of cheese each year.
Enter Jesse Williams, enterprising dairyman from Rome, N.Y. Jesse’s family had been farming the fertile banks of the Mohawk River ever since his dad and uncles had struck out north after fighting in the Revolutionary War. By 1835, Jesse and his wife Amanda were the proud owners of “265 acres of improved land, 65 head of cattle, 3 horses, 72 sheep, 27 hogs, 30 yards of fulled cloth and 40 yards of flannel.” The couple put all their energy into their farm, operating a gristmill and country store in addition to raising crops and livestock. The twinkle in Jesse’s eye, however, was reserved for making cheese.
Cheesemaking appealed to Jesse. The savvy merchant in him had calculated that investing in his dairy production would make more money than growing wheat like his father and uncles, and he could constantly tinker with the process, coming up with his own cheese molds and other devices. But making more cheese wasn’t good enough—he needed to make good cheese. So one year Jesse and Amanda rented out the farm and toured as many New York dairies as they could find in order to learn all the ins and outs of cheesemaking. When they returned, the Williams cheese made a huge leap in quality. In the exultant words of biographer Frederick A. Rahmer, “Jesse Williams had become by far the best cheesemaker in this country and perhaps the world.”
Jesse had become king of the cheesy castle: one of his cheeses won first prize at the county fair, and from mid-1849 to mid-1850 his farm was producing 25,000 pounds of cheese. The only thing left for Jesse to do was to solidify his legacy. His son George had just gotten married and, eager for some grandbabies, Jesse decided to give George a leg up. The next time Jesse’s cheese-buyers visited to negotiate prices for the coming year, he set out to convince them to buy George’s cheese at the same price as his own: 7¢ a pound. This price was more than worth it for Jesse’s cheese—number one in the county, after all—but they had some hesitations about his son. How long had he been making cheese? Would George’s cheese be up to snuff? Jesse eventually got his way by personally guaranteeing the quality of his son’s cheese, but George wasn’t so confident and backed out of the deal.
At this moment in history, spring of 1851, the cheese factory was born. Like most earth-shattering innovations, the story behind its inception remains shrouded in myth and rumor. Some say that Jesse tried to impart unto George all of his cheese wisdom, but George simply didn’t get it and Jesse, frustrated, figured he would just do it himself and give George a share of the profits. Others say that George’s wife, intimidated by Jesse and Amanda’s cheesemaking prowess, suggested combining both of their farms’ dairy output to avoid embarrassing herself. In any case, the decision to take milk from the surrounding area to a central location and create a uniform, quality product was the seed that would grow into the modern industrial food system.
After Jesse’s initial success with George’s milk, the crafty dairyman began talking up his neighbors and acquiring their milk, too. Soon the Williams Cheese Factory was utilizing the milk of 300–400 cows and, in its very first season of operation, producing 100,000 pounds of cheese—more than five times the amount produced by the typical farmstead.
As news spread of his outstanding success, dairymen from across the country flocked to Rome to learn all about the process, and the Williams, to their credit, freely answered as many questions as they could to spread the gospel of factory cheese. Within fifteen years, there were 500 such cheese factories just in New York State alone.
In 1951, Rome held a citywide celebration of the centennial of Jesse’s invention of the cheese factory. Pageants were held, and all kinds cheesemakers sent their representatives to attend. At the lavish final banquet, John H. Kraft, president of Kraft Foods, sang the praises of Jesse Williams:
From Pioneers like Jesse Williams, who founded the factory system of processing dairy products in large volume, came the ideas and tools that have made America great… Where would Jesse have been in his history-making development had he said “I can’t do it that way because that isn’t the way my father did it?” Where would our nation be had not pioneers such as Jesse dared to do things differently?”
Some may answer Kraft’s question with a resounding, “Better off! We should have maintained the separation of cheese and factory!” But regardless of how we feel, Jesse William’s innovation marked the first step in the march toward process cheese and—seriously—changed the world. Come back next week to learn about the next step in the march towards Process Cheese: Filled cheese.