American Cheese

American cheese ad from 1951

There are a few basic staple foods that every single Boomer kid partook of, no matter the race, creed, or social status. For example, there was Campbell’s Soup. There were various incarnations of TV dinners. And there was the grilled cheese sandwich.

Today’s column isn’t specifically about the grilled cheese sandwich. No, rather, it was about the technological innovations that led to the ability of our mothers to open the fridge, pop out a slice of American cheese, put it between two slices of bread, and quickly and easily create a bit of culinary heaven.

I could trace history back to Bedouin shepherds who lived thousands of years ago, but instead, I’m beginning with James L. Kraft.

Kraft had moved to Chicago from Canada in 1903. He opened a cheese production business with the $65 he had in his pocket.

Kraft was a sharp cookie, and he soon devised a method of transforming cheddar scraps, which would otherwise be disposed of, into a processed cheese. It was so innovative that he patented his idea in 1916. Kraft’s cheese would also last much longer on the shelf than classic cheese, and consumers loved its taste!

Demand for Kraft’s new cheese was so great that he had to scale up production greatly. Cheddar that might otherwise sold on its own merit was now shredded and converted into Kraft’s processed product.

Traditional cheesemakers were outraged at the success of what they considered a bastardized insult to their trade, and demanded that the government pass regulations that would require Kraft, and any other manufacturers, to label their product as “embalmed cheese.”

Yum, yum.

Fortunately for Kraft, and the rest of mankind, the FDA instead ruled that the packaging read “processed cheese.”

During WWII, our fathers ate American cheese from their rations. The long-lasting, nutritious, tasty delight was perfect for the battlefield. Once the war was over, our fathers had our mothers pick up American cheese at the supermarkets. Thus, it became a part of the diets of even the very eldest members of the Boomer generation.

But it was an innovation that took place either in 1950 (according to curdnerds.com, and other online sources) or 1952 (The History Channel’s

American cheese ad from 1967

Modern Marvels) that cemented American cheese as an item to be found in nearly every refrigerator in the US: sliced sandwich-sized singles.

Once again, the innovator was Kraft’s company. They began slicing the cheese into just the right thickness to go perfectly on a sandwich. Sometime later, they began wrapping each individual slice in cellophane.

Thus, the grilled cheese sandwich, a food that really took off during our generation, is also wildly popular among all of the generations that have followed. Even health nuts eat lower-fat versions of the delicious, slightly mysterious substance known as American cheese.

Oh, one last thing, four your culinary curiosity, here are the ingredients in American cheese, shouted for emphasis!

MILK, WHEY, MILK FAT, MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SALT, CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, SODIUM CITRATE, WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SORBIC ACID AS A PRESERVATIVE, APOCAROTENAL (COLOR), ANNATTO (COLOR), ENZYMES, VITAMIN D3, CHEESE CULTURE.

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