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Consider: The History of Velveeta

Is there anything the Smithsonian doesn’t cover?

velveeta_cheese

Melted Americana 

Natasha Geiling  writes:  Just in time for the biggest dip day of the year, Kraft Foods announced that Americans might notice a distinct lack of Velveeta on their grocery store shelves. Following an announcement by the company, which noted that consumers in some states might have a hard time finding their liquid gold cheese in the coming weeks, the Internet wasted no time in completely freaking out, dubbing the shortage “Cheesepocalypse” on Twitter and creating imitation Velveeta-dip recipes on Lifehacker. There’s even a website, Cheesepocalypse.org, which shows a map of the conversation about the Velveeta shortage by pulling geographic information via Twitter (currently, users are talking most about the shortage in places like Massachusetts and Maryland).* In reality, people looking to munch on a chip with dip might have to resort to traditional cheese for their melty concoctions–which, while reassuringly natural, will also mean less-than-velvety texture for a lot of Super Bowl dips.

It’s an unfortunate reality that cheese, when melted, becomes imperfect–it pools oil (more, the fattier it is) and coagulates quickly, turning a once molten bowl of queso dip into a sad stringy mess. Seekers of gooey cheese can work around this by using a young cheese or a less-fatty cheese, but sometimes, standard hacks just won’t cut it: enter Velveeta, a cheese named for the fact that it melts so smooth.

In reality, the makers of Velveeta weren’t looking for a way to melt cheese down–they were looking for a way to put cheese back together. And, though it’s owned by, and most heavily associated with, Kraft now, Velveeta was not one of James L. Kraft‘s cheese creations.

The Frankenstein behind the cheese creation was one Emil Frey, a Swiss cheesemaker who moved from Switzerland to upstate New York, where he worked in cheese factories in the late 1880s. While working at the Monroe Cheese Factory in Monroe, New York, Frey made a name for himself in cheese history by creating Liederkranz, an American-made version of Limburger, a particularly odoriferous semi-soft cow’s milk cheese. Liederkranz was extremely successful, but the Monroe Cheese Company wasn’t so lucky: in 1891, the business was foreclosed upon by a bank and bought by a New York City grocer named Jacob Weisl. Under Weisl’s new leadership, the company opened up a second factory in Covington, Pennsylvania, which produced mostly Swiss cheese. Unfortunately, cheesemaking wasn’t–and still isn’t–a perfectly precise process, and the factory noticed that many wheels were broken or misshapen, wasting valuable product. Not wanting to let this waste fall by the wayside, the company shipped the broken bits back to Monroe, where Frey was charged with figuring out a way to make something valuable from the scraps.

Laura Werlin, cheese historian and author of The New American Cheese, speculates that the rise in cheese factories might have been the final push to save these broken bits. “Cheese manufacturing was new, meaning that it was done on a much smaller scale prior. On a smaller scale, if you lose a little bit here and there, it still has an impact on you the producer, but when you see it coming off the line on a larger scale and there’s all this waste piling up, maybe it seemed like, ‘Wow, we’re losing a lot here and it’s time we try to think of something to do with it,'” she speculates.

Frey was tinkering with the recipe for Velveeta at an interesting time in American cheese history. “The whole 20th century, there’s so much technology and rapid change,” says Paul Kindstedt, professor and author of Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization. “Velveeta is a very important part of the story.” The Industrial Revolution of a century before had turned the world on its head, and cheese production was no different: small, farm-based cheesemakers of yesteryear had turned into large, industrial cheese operations. Moreover, the cheesemaking industry was crossing into science like never before, with the first processed cheeses coming out of Europe in the early part of the 20th century (from the Swiss tradition of melting cheeses for fondue). In America, James L. Kraft became perhaps the most recognizable face of processed cheese when he discovered that heated cheese with added emulsifying salts would form into a solid mass when cooled–and would keep much longer than non-processed cheese. Processed cheese was immediately welcomed by American consumers because of its consistent quality and increased stability…

Read the rest..

Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

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