This American Cheese Life.

American Cheese was once the delicacy used to satisfy hungry troops through two World Wars. The cheese was even considered a luxury. Eventually, that conception changed with the demonization of processed food rightfully spreading throughout the world.

American cheese, the perfect little squares of either white or orange rubbery goodness, individually wrapped in their specifically slim envelopes of plastic. Once the mandatory addition to so many cheeseburgers and childhood grilled cheese sandwiches, American Cheese has widely fallen into disfavor of late.

American cheese’s reputation has suffered as tastes change, sales declining steadily over the past four years. Before we dismiss one of our country’s most iconic culinary additions let us briefly explore what American Cheese really is, what it is, and how it came to be.

Let There Be Cheese

Though commonly associated with America due to it’s misleading moniker, American cheese was invented in Switzerland by two food chemists. Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler created the cheese in 1911. They were attempting to lengthen the shelf life of cheese, a problem that may sound strange nowadays. Experiments centered around a hard Swiss called “Emmental” which they combined with sodium citrate. The result was a smooth velvety cheese that boasted a shelf life that could only be described as immortal.

Around the same time, in North America, a man whose name you might recognize, James Lewis Kraft, was experimenting with a similar process in an attempt to create something he called “warm cheese”. This warm cheese was soft, easy to slice, and lasted as long as you did. As warm cheese evolved emulsifying salts were added aiding in the notorious melt we associate with Velveeta. By 1944 young Norman Kraft had patented a process to cool, slice, and individually wrap slivers of their cheese into the “singles” we know and love.

Is American Cheese the “Perfect” Cheese

Before American cheese was despised it was loved, even revered. It was the Swiss Army knife of cheeses. Utilitarian in nature and design, it was everything it was supposed to be. It was convenient, had an absurd shelf-life, and tasted similar enough to other cheese to be considered an acceptable alternative. American cheese became the old standby for soldiers shipped overseas and aided in making army issued bologna sandwiches palatable through war.

During the industrial boom of the 1950’s, each of those individually prepackaged orange squares was a neatly wrapped symbol of American progress. This was an age when industrialization was the shining beacon of a booming economy. It was a luxury to be able to stock your refrigerator with “Deluxe” Kraft slices. The cheese of the elite, it was touted as the “perfect” cheese for its guaranteed consistency of taste, texture, shape, and color.

The Fall From Grace

Today all the glory has fallen by the wayside. American cheese lost its prominence as foreign cheese became more accessible. Now attached with the stigma of being “government cheese” from its use within the welfare system. Our society has turned it’s back on the delicacy as a whole. Consumers are more health-conscious than ever. The very thing that made American cheese “perfect” decades ago has made it undesirable to most in the 21st century.

There remains a faction of foodies, restaurant owners, and chefs who have stood by our old reliable American Cheese. Restaurant chains like Shake Shack, In-n-Out, and Five Guys still stand by American Cheese. After rigorous tests, the owners of Five Guys decided to stick with Kraft Singles because of it’s ability to retain their velvety nature even after being melted. The cheese does not separate or become greasy the way other cheeses do after a flash under the salamander.

To get the best of both worlds cheese manufacturers across the country are crafting an alternative. Looking to make American cheese that still has the desirable texture, but made from better ingredients. The goal is to create organic slices free of pesticides, GMO’s, and hormones.

While American Cheese has certainly fallen from its throne it remains a hallmark of American history and culture. To this day some persist in it being the “perfect” cheese.

If you’re looking to learn more about food and drink history, here are two related article. These articles are about the history of the Moscow Mule and the Bloody Mary.

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Hannah Abaffy

Hannah Abaffy

Pastry Chef & Recipe Development

Hannah Abaffy is a pastry chef and an active member of the culinary community. From working in kitchens to developing recipes, and creating menus for restaurants, she has been involved with food in one capacity or another for the past decade. After starting a food history blog, Hannah has been continuously writing and learning about the ever-changing realm of cuisine, its history, and its future. Since then her appetite to learn about and share all things that touch upon the world of food can only be described as voracious.

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