This week I want to talk about cheese, but not the famous European cheeses like Camembert or Gouda or Parmesan. I am going to share with you some historic highlights about processed cheeses, or as some call it, American cheese. It will be spread liberally with a dose of nostalgia, of course, just like you might spread Cheez Whiz on your toast.
Cheese was a part of the diet of many ancient cultures – the Egyptians, Greeks, Celts, and others. Many of the famous European cheeses like Roquefort and Brie were established from the 1400s through the 1800s. It was in the 1880s that cheese became popular to export, and so finding ways to preserve it became important.
Did you know that processed cheese was officially invented by the Swiss in 1911? They combined sodium citrate with the cheese and emulsified it as they heated it, creating a firm but still spreadable product. This was basically canned cheese. (Washington state still makes a canned cheese called Cougar Gold that has a cult following.)
In Canada, there was a fellow named Alexander Ferguson McLaren who learned cheesemaking and played a small part in this history. He and his brother formed a cheese company in Ontario, and in 1892 they came up with a potted soft cheese made with ground cheddar called McLaren’s Imperial Cheese. Does anyone remember this stuff? It would keep forever in the fridge. If you have run out, it is still sold in some stores.
It was another Canadian-born cheese wizard who invented Cheez Whiz. James L. Kraft created it originally for the UK market as an easy way to make the popular dish of Welsh Rarebit (like an open-faced grilled cheese). It became such a hit, it crossed the pond and joined Kraft Singles in the North American market.
The convenience of prepared and processed food was very popular in my childhood. Families of the 70s were getting even busier with more working moms. Products like Squeez-a-snak cheese from Kraft made regular food seem fancy and fun. This stuff was a luxury in my parents’ eyes, though.
In our house, Kraft Singles were a cheaper alternative to cheddar. But they were referred to as “plastic cheese” and only used for grilled cheese, cheeseburgers or boosting a Kraft Dinner sauce. My dad never tolerated having Cheez Whiz, but my mom did used to make what she called “cheese & pimento” for putting on Ritz crackers and celery sticks. She used Velveeta, which as far as I can tell is almost the same thing as Cheez Whiz, but in a box. She spiffed it up with her homemade mayonnaise and canned pimento.
Cheez Whiz paved the way for many more processed products. (If you want to know more offbeat facts about the stuff, including how to use it in the laundry room, check out this article.) We have come to enjoy with great enthusiasm the convenience of prepared foods. I wonder if Mr. Kraft had any idea of how big the genie was that he let out of the bottle.
Nowadays there are many brands of processed cheese and of course even non-dairy versions that grace grocery store shelves. They are no longer a much cheaper alternative to unprocessed cheese, but their popularity continues. According to one study, Canadians consume on average 5.5 pounds of the stuff each year.
I still make cheese and pimento every once in a while, to have with a few Ritz crackers, alongside some sweet pickles and maybe even a can of smoked oysters if I’m feeling really nostalgic. I figure the comfort I get from all those wonderful childhood memories offsets the lack of nutritional value.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.