American Plate - Bite #98: American Cheese

Tuesday, May 29, 2018
The reputation of a lot of American food is less than sterling. People love to look down their noses at certain foods, and when I say the phrase "American cheese", I can bet that a certain image comes to mind. It can be tough for American cheese to instill the same respect as far as influencing our national cuisine as something traditional like maize, or even ice cream can do. Still, American cheese is woven into the fabric of our nation in myriad ways. Not only is it a symbol of food engineering, but of political policy and the resurgence of a more rustic food movement.

It took hold in this country the same way a lot of other foods did: It was easy to store and resilient. What better way was there for a Plymouth pilgrim to keep milk over the long winter months than by eating it as cheese? It was just the calorie bomb hungry citizens needed. The plethora of grassland for grazing animals ensured that cheese was popular from the very beginning. There actually weren't that many steps between that and cheese so processed that it has to be called "cheese product".

Cheese was mostly made, bought, and sold as a farm product until 1851, when Jesse Williams and his son opened the first cheese factory. Its commercial use took off, and in 1916, James L. Kraft patented what came to be known as the Kraft American Single. The main customer was the military, but it was soon discovered that the public would eat it up, too. It melted well, and was produced more "cleanly" than farm cheese, so Americans were soon lining up to pay more for inferior cheese. This trend continued, culminating in the invention of Cheez Whiz in 1952, a product so full of additives that it doesn't contain an iota of actual cheese.

The reputation of American cheese was not improved in the 1970s, which saw the creation of the Dairy Price Support Program. Giving governmental assistance to dairy farmers led to a glut of cheese that was given out in the 1980s to needy families; hence the phrase "government cheese".

Things started to change with the uptick of interest in the culinary world. People began to remember the good ol' days of eating real cheese, and a new generation of higher class American cheeses started to appear. From Vermont cheddar to the goat cheeses of California, American cheese is now something discussed in the same circles as expensive wines.

I wanted to be sure to taste a range of what American cheese had to offer, so as you'll see in the picture above, I visited both ends of the spectrum: After snacking on a few slices of Kraft singles, I bought a wedge of some pretty expensive Humboldt Fog, which made my taste buds sing with happiness.

Though cheese is eaten all over the world, it has come to symbolize so many different things in American culture, from ethics in food production to a sense of socioeconomic status. It helped colonists survive the winter and helped poor Americans survive unemployment. It gives us a lot to think about as we spear a cube of Colby Jack with a toothpick.