Pure Unprocessed American: How Kraft Processed America | culture: the word on cheese
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Pure Unprocessed American: How Kraft Processed America

In a country with a strong diversity of delicious curds, labeling those brightly colored processed squares the all-encompassing “American” has always felt off-putting. So in my blog series, Pure Unprocessed American, I aim to detail what makes up the wide spread of real American cheeses, looking into the practical history of cheese in the States, reporting on official state cheeses and notable cheesemongers, and how different environments, from the Rockies to the Redwoods, affect the milk and the means for making cheese. Missed last week’s introductory post? Check it out!

They say it’s important to know thy enemy. Well, here I go. My first post begins where I hope to never go back to: Kraft Singles. After this I will move from the factories to the fields and be at home in the greenery, but I feel like there is a certain importance to showing the details between the processed and artisan (or what I like to think of as “natural”) cheese.

James L. Kraft was a Canadian-born businessman of German descent who became the first to patent processed cheese. After being forced out of his first company, Kraft started a business of bringing cheese from wholesale warehouses outside Chicago to businesses inside the city. This was beneficial to those businesses, as it cut out the hassle of getting the cheese themselves. This could possibly have been the start of processed squares, if only in intention—Kraft aimed to make cheese more streamlined, and when his brothers joined him in the Windy City they created J.L. Kraft & Bros Co. to do just that.

Portrait of James Lewis Kraft in his middle age; his hair is slicked back and he wears circular spectacles.
Portrait of James Lewis Kraft

The whole idea of process cheese was to extend the life of that cheese. Big vats of cheddar were melted down and re-pasteurized. By constantly stirring and adding sodium phosphate, the orange sludge became the longer-living American cheese we know today. The idea was patented in 1916, and the fledgling Kraft Co. sold it in cans. It was an immediate success commercially and was sent overseas with American troops in both World Wars.

It was James’ brother Norman, head of research at Kraft, who began devising a way to precut the cheese to make it easier for the consumer. Sometime in 1935, Norman began spreading the cheese out on a cold table and slicing it into squares after it hardened. It took 15 years to perfect the style, but it led to a sales increase of around 150%.

The last problem to solve was the slices sticking together. In 1956, an engineer named Arnold Nawrocki created a machine that individually wrapped each cheese slice for this very purpose. It changed the field of processed cheese and caused Kraft to develop its own packaging technique, giving us the individually packaged Kraft Singles in 1965.

Kraft ad for De luxe Slices. "AT LAST...the perfect way to buy cheese-in-slices!"

Kraft made cheese easier for the home and family. But in doing so he kind of killed the soul of the cheese itself. There is an incredible amount of details that make up the taste and consistency of “natural” cheese. Think about terroir—is a French term used to describe the natural environment a certain product is grown within. With cheese, this refers to the weather that affects the grass that’s eaten by the cows, sheep, goats, or even buffalo, which in turn affects the taste of the milk and the resulting cheese. Cheesemakers can change the diet of the cows to alter the specific taste that will give the end cheese the personality they want. But processing cheese kills that character. They become squares of orange plastic, extremely cheap and consistently meh.

The artisan cheese movement in America has been aiming to reverse all that by creating more easily accessible natural cheese. It adds a feeling back to the cheese, a feeling you can only get the old fashioned way—which I’ll explore in next week’s post, so stay tuned!

Cary Spector

Cary is a BFA Writing, Literature and Publishing Major at Emerson College. When not enjoying the luxuries of cheese and other dairy, he can most likely be found making guacamole. "If there are avocados, there will be guac,” as he always says.