Ah, American cheese. Our relationship to you can be a bit confusing sometimes.
American cheese, also known as “American process cheese” is the favorite of some and the not-favorite of others. However, whatever your opinion of these individually-wrapped orange sheets may be, you have to admit that they make amazing grilled cheese. Many of us grew up enjoying grilled cheese sandwiches made of American cheese on white bread, and even though it isn’t the healthiest sandwich in the world, it’s comforting and delicious in a way that words really can’t describe. It’s the sandwich that you just need sometimes—and no other ingredients can be substituted. None of this healthy bread and exotic cheese stuff—no thank you!
At The Big Cheezy, we know the heart of grilled cheese. That is why all of our menus prominently feature “The Original,” a grilled cheese sandwich made with American cheese and white bread along with some cheddar to give it an extra-comforting cheese kick. It is also why we are going to dedicate the first of our CHEEZY History series to the cheese of our childhoods: American cheese.
The whole cheese thing started in Europe and traveled to America with the pilgrims. Of all the different types of cheese, cheddar survived the American climate the best, so early Americans started developing their own products. They exported this cheese back to England, where it was called “Yankee cheese” and snubbed as inferior (surprise, surprise).
In 1851, cheddar cheese moved from the barn to the factory, and American cheese making was transformed forever . A man named Jesse Williams created the very first American cheese factory with his son. Rumor has it that his son was terrible at making cheese, and the factory was a father’s desperate attempt to give the family business a chance to survive Junior’s lack of skill. Either way, they started buying milk from local farms and turning it into cheese.
Once people realized that factory-made cheddar cheese was consistently yummy and actually viable as a business, cheese factories began to pop up all over. The cheese that filled stores became so common, it was known as “yellow cheese” or “store cheese.”
Thank You, Canada
In 1903, a Canadian named James L. Kraft moved to Chicago with only $65 to his name. He used that money to buy a horse and wagon and began selling cheese wholesale. He struggled with wasting cheese, so he began to experiment with storing it in jars and cans. When that didn’t give him the results he wanted, he shredded the cheddar, re-pasteurized it, and mixed in sodium phosphate. The scientific wonder we now know as American cheese was born!
Everybody loved American cheese. It was invaluable to soldiers in both World Wars, and by 1930, more than 40% of the cheese being eaten in the United States was Kraft’s cheese. Kraft was clever, too: he used marketing around consistency and safety to make people pay more for the cheese. He patented his scientific triumph in 1916.
A cheese-like product
As you can imagine, cheese makers who had dedicated themselves to producing 100% natural cheese did not take kindly to Kraft. They lobbied to have his product officially recognized as something other than real cheese. The government agreed and created a new category for Kraft’s cheese: cheese-like products. Kraft’s “American cheese” was defined by law as a “homogeneous plastic mass.” Yum!
The American cheese that comforts us so thoroughly has made it through a 150-year journey to play the role it does today. Some people find it unpalatable and rather embarrassing, but that just means there’s more for us. Stop in to any of our three locations and enjoy a traditional grilled cheese sandwich done right!