Real Cheese Product—No Country for Old Cheeses | culture: the word on cheese
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Real Cheese Product—No Country for Old Cheeses

American grilled cheese sandwich

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 haven’t been keeping up with the intriguing story, here’s a link to last week’s post on J.L. Kraft.

James Lewis Kraft hit the dairy jackpot in 1914 when he arrived at his magical formula for sterilized, process cheese. As James explains in the patent he filed in 1916:

I discovered that cheese of the Cheddar genus may be prevented from disintegrating under the action of heat of as high temperature as 175º F. or even more, by subjecting the mass to proper agitation and stirring continuously… until it has been maintained at that temperature amply long enough to insure thorough sterilization.

Essentially, heat and stir—simple as that. Yet this recipe made revolutionary leaps and bounds in culinary progress: it never spoiled (at least, not for a very long time) and it was always consistent (that same, creamy cheesy goop every time). This infant process cheese, when combined with the entrepreneurial spirit of James Kraft and series of very fortunate events, would propel the barely five-year-old J. L. Kraft & Bros. Company (four of his Ontario brothers made the move to Chicago to form the company in 1909) to popular, economic success.

Photo of James Kraft's original patent for his "PROCESS OF STERILIZING CHEESES"

Photo of James Kraft’s original patent for his “PROCESS OF STERILIZING CHEESES”

One of the biggest factors in the success of the company was the start of World War I in 1914. With almost five million US servicemen participating throughout the course of the war, a daunting question arose: How do you feed them all? To the awe and relief of the Untied States armed forces, James Kraft was able to answer this question with his “permanently keeping” wonder cheese and a brand new way of packaging his process.

The cheeses of yore, handcrafted in tiny batches on individual farms and later whipped up en masse in large factories, arrived at the local grocer in huge wheels (the most economical way of transporting them and keeping them fresh). James and the rest of the Kraft brothers, however, began to occupy an entirely new production paradigm. Their cheese wasn’t shaped into wheels and aged in a cave—it was a gloopy mass that was heated up, stirred in a cauldron, and removed of all bacteria. It could take on any shape.

Old ad for Kraft, "Yo Ho and a Sandwich of Kraft!"

Old ad for Kraft, “Yo Ho and a Sandwich of Kraft!”

Freed from the shackles of traditional cheesemaking and with an eye toward food preservation, Kraft & Bros. decided to distribute their cheese not in wheels but in three-ounce and eight-ounce aluminum cans. Consumers (including soldiers) could now eat their own cheese in individual servings, not scraped from a ginormous, weeks-old wheel just sittin’ in that store window. They could take it with them and not be afraid of bruising the food or contaminating it. They now had the power to enjoy fresh, creamy cheese that tasted pretty good anywhere, anytime.

By the end of the war, the military had purchased six million pounds of the stuff for its troops. As Melanie Warner notes in Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, “And so in France, the nation with the world’s proudest cheese heritage, many Americans got their first taste of processed cheese.”

So Kraft made it big during wartime. But how did his process cheese fare back home during peacetime you ask, intrigued and inquisitive reader that you are. Well, for the most part, Kraft process cheese was a smashing success. Households across the country liked it for the same reasons as the military: it didn’t spoil and it was consistent. No longer did housewives need to haggle with their cheesemongers for a slice of cheddar whose taste they could never guarantee would be the same from one batch to the next. Instead, all they had to do was head down to their local grocers; stock up on dozens of shiny Kraft tins; take them out weeks, months, or years down the line; and experience that same cheesy process goodness.

Now, process cheese wasn’t universally accepted: many in thereal cheese business considered it a travesty of their golden dairy ideals (not to mention a serious contender and ever-growing competitor in the cheese market). In Wisconsin, the heartland of American cheese production for more than a hundred years, dairymen were up in arms, eventually instigating an investigation into Kraft cheese in 1925. When the Wisconsin Dairy and Food Commissioner discovered that the cheeses in Kraft Bros. tins weren’t properly aged and that their Roquefort, Swiss, and Camembert flavors were all made out of the same mild cheddar, it looked like Kraft was about to be slapped by the long regulatory backhand of the law. Despite calls to officially dub the Kraft concoction “renovated cheese” or even “embalmed cheese,” the FDA finally stepped in and came up with the designation that we have all grown to love and appreciate: “process cheese.”

1940 ad for Kraft Old English Cheddar, "Definitely, I say. Definitely it has the sharp flavour of fine, aged Cheddar."

1940 ad for Kraft Old English Cheddar, “Definitely, I say. Definitely it has the sharp flavour of fine, aged Cheddar.”

Where did this leave Kraft? From $500,000 in sales in 1917, J. L. Kraft & Bros. Company reported $36 million in sales in 1926. By 1930, 40 percent of all cheese eaten in the United States was made in Kraft factories.

And how did Kraft respond to these allegations of cheese falsity and dairy mummification? With the counterproposal that this was the cheese of the future! A 1924 ad explains that, “Kraft cheese is not ‘just cheese’ in a newfangled package. It is modern ideas and modern methods applied to cheese making.” Another ad assures consumers, “Cheese in tins is the new, safe and clean way to buy cheese.”

People ate it up. Traditional cheesemakers argued that the genuine article tasted much better than this process junk, but a 1932 University of Wisconsin study found that two thirds of people actually preferred process cheese to real cheese.

So there you have it—our buddy James Lewis Kraft starts off with a horse, a wagon, and sixty-five bucks in his pocket and ends up with a multimillion dollar process cheese empire. Stop by next week for real cheese product’s takedown of Kraft’s two most beloved/reviled products: the American Single and (drumroll…) Macaroni and Cheese!

Photo by Gonegluten-free

Grant Bradley

Grant Bradley is culture's former web editor and never ceases to thank his nameless human ancestor who figured that leaving some milk around for a while and then eating it was probably a great idea. Raised on California’s Central Coast, educated in the Pacific Northwest, and transplanted to New England, Grant likes to write, edit, and code things.

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