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Real Cheese Product—Kraft Keepsakes Part II: Macaroni and Cheese

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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. If you missed it, be sure to go back and read last week’s post Kraft Keepsakes Part I: The American Single.


The 1930s were a pretty great time for the Kraft brothers—James Lewis had launched the fledgling company from a copper cauldron full of melted cheese in a tiny Chicago apartment to a national, multimillion-dollar company; Norman had ingeniously discovered that pouring melted cheese onto a big slab and cooling it down would allow technicians to cut it up in single-serving slices. But there’s one Kraft food that has yet to be touched upon within the digital pages of real cheese product—the champion of champions, foodstuff of children and adults alike, and perhaps the defining offering from Kraft foods: Join us now for the second part of real cheese product’s takedown of the Kraft Cheese Empire as we look as the cool fox in the blue box, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner.

Part II: Macaroni and Cheese

Handwritten note from Thomas Jefferson detailing a pasta machine

Handwritten note from Thomas Jefferson detailing a pasta machine

While there might be a tendency among us to consider macaroni and cheese purely as a twentieth-century staple, fitting snugly alongside trappings of American modernity like the microwave or the food processor, macaroni and cheese actually dates back a couple of hundred years. Scholars have not tracked down the exact source of this beautiful creation, but they do agree it probably originates somewhere in Northern Europe.

Macaroni and cheese first appeared on American shores in the pleasantly surprising table of Thomas Jefferson. Apparently TJ got hooked on the stuff during his years in France and was so unable to kick the habit that he brought back fistfuls of recipes and a bona fide pasta machine in order to get this heavenly combo straight from the source. As president, Jefferson even served it at a state dinner in 1802.

Fast-forward to the 1930s—the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, and while Kraft was doing mighty fine, unprecedented unemployment and dour financial markets darkened the clouds for Americans of every stripe. A lone traveling salesman, whose name is lost to the winds of time, wandered the American heartland touting the wares of the Tenderoni Macaroni Company of St. Louis, Missouri. 

1939 ad for Kraft Dinner: "Good News for Lent! Now only 9 minutes to make macaroni-and-cheese"

1939 ad for Kraft Dinner: “Good News for Lent! Now only 9 minutes to make macaroni-and-cheese”

While the macaroni he was selling certainly fit the bill of cheap dinner staple for the jobless hungry masses, it got to be a little bland at times. (Plain macaroni, for those who have never been stranded without a miraculous packet of orange cheese powder, is lackluster at best.), our nameless macaroni salesman decided to introduce a game changer: he literally bundled together boxes of macaroni with packages of grated Kraft cheese. The new product satisfied the paramount factors for an American meal in the Depression—cheap and delicious—and spread like wildfire. The Kraft cronies soon caught wind of this phenomenon, hired the salesman, and released their own complete, boxed version in 1937 as the Kraft Dinner. At 19¢ a box, the new product sold like hotcakes. Eight million boxes were sold in the first year alone.

Already on a steep upward trajectory into the black, Kraft’s mac and cheese received another huge push when the United States entered World War II. The entire country entered a rationing system, and in its infinite wisdom the government decided that Kraft mac and cheese was an excellent substitute for now scarce meat and dairy, and it decreed that one rationing coupon would buy two whole boxes of macaroni and cheese. In 1943 alone, Kraft sold more than eighty million boxes.

In the next several decades, boxed, process mac and cheese maintained its meteoric pace. In 1958, Kraft decided to split their trademark name Kraft Dinner down the middle and insert what exactly that dinner was, resulting in Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, as well as Kraft Spaghetti Dinner, Kraft Pizza Dinner, and more. (The Canadian market stuck to the original name, which it holds to this day.) The ’80s brought noodles in the shapes of cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and the Flintstones. Today, Kraft sells around 350 million boxes of Macaroni and Cheese each year.

1964 ad for different kinds of Kraft Dinners: Pizza and Cheese, Spaghetti, Noodles and Chicken

1964 ad for different kinds of Kraft Dinners: Pizza and Cheese, Spaghetti, Noodles and Chicken

So that’s that, ladies and fellas—we have now ever so gingerly placed the giant Imperial Topaz that is Macaroni and Cheese into the center socket of the bejeweled crown of the Kraft Empire. Join us next week for a look at the game-changing miracle of milk protein concentrate! This is real cheese product.

Photo by Compfight

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