What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear American cheese? Do you think about American cheese slices, Kraft singles, and Velveeta? These cheeses give American cheese a bad name. As a child my favorite cheese was, government welfare cheese. I used to love these enormous orange blocks of cheese that would come in a cardboard box. Sometimes I wish I could still get this cheese but I am happy to longer need this cheese. America has done so many awful things to cheese, we have even put cheese in a can which you can spray directly onto a cracker. Growing up in Philly, home of the cheesesteak, you would have to choose between cheese whiz, American cheese, and provolone at Pat’s steaks.
Cheese has been apart of American since the beginning, as soon as British colonists arrived in America they started making cheddar. American cheddars were being exported to England by 1790. The British called these cheddars “American cheese” or “Yankee cheese”. In 1878, The New York Times gave the total amount of cheese being exported to be 355 million pounds a year with the potential to reach 1,420 million pounds. American cheese was considered by the British to be inferior but cheap and therefore popular. This is where the idea of American cheese being inferior originated. An article from 1878 mentions that exceptional American cheeses were often relabeled under European names after export leaving the low grade cheeses to be labeled as American.
The term “American cheese” was first used in 1804 and appeared again in The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles Dickens in 1860. Americans have called their cheddars “yellow cheese” or “store cheese” or “apple pie cheese”. With the increase of cheese factories in the 1890’s, these cheeses were called “factory cheese”. In the 1920’s these cheeses were often called “rattrap cheese” or “rat cheese”. That does not sound tasty; no wonder cheese had a bad reputation for so long.
The legal definition in America for “American cheese” is a kind of pasteurized processed cheese. Today there is a new term for cheese, American Artisanal cheese which is cheese made by hand in small batches. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, American artisanal cheese began to grow in popularity. Factory made cheese manufactured by large companies dominated the market but there were a few small cheesemakers. The Vella Cheese Company started in 1931 and Maytag Dairy started in 1941. Both of these companies are still making excellent cheese.
In the summer of 1942, the US imposed restrictions on cheese consumption because of the war. This conservation measure allowed American cheese to be the only type of cheese to be legally consumed. This was to encourage wartime patriotism and due to the surplus of American cheese and lack of European cheeses. The ban took effect May 4, 1942 and was quickly repealed on August 1, 1942 due to public response and complaints from British exporters that it damaged morale and solidarity between the US and Britain.
Growing up, cheese was a major part of every family gathering. I can remember my mother making special trips to Trader Joe’s in the early 90’s just for cheese. Saint Andre became a family favorite along with fresh chevre that was often drizzled in olive oil and coated in spices. Pate, pumpernickel, and cornichons always had space on our table. I can remember teasing my aunt about cornichons just being little pickles. I was lucky to grow up in Philly because I can always remember there being Claudio King of cheese, DiBruno, and the Reading Terminal, with wonderful cheese selections. Even the small mom and Pop delis had some pretty great cheeses. I first fell in love with Prima Donna when I was living next door to a small family deli on Passyunk Avenue.
Cheese has come a long way in the United States. The American Cheese Society was founded in 1983 to promote American made cheese. The American consumer is more interested in cheese these days and more interesting cheeses are being imported into America. There has been an increase in the number of cheese specialty shops in America and an increase in cheeses available in supermarkets. The American cheese palette is growing beyond cow’s milk cheeses to include sheep and goat cheese.
America is the world’s largest cheese producer making 30% of the world’s cheese. Germany is the second largest producer followed by France, Italy, and the Netherlands. The largest exporter of cheese is France and then Germany based on monetary value. 95% of the cheese produced in Ireland is for exporting, 90% in New Zealand, 72% in the Netherlands and 65% in Australia. The largest importer of cheese is Germany followed by the UK and Italy. The largest consumer of cheese per capitia is Greece followed by France then Italy. As of 2003, Americans ate an average of 31 lbs of cheese per person with Mozzarella accounting for about 1/3 of this consumption.
America is producing some amazing cheese, many of which are being recognized in Europe. American made cheeses won 140 International awards in 2006. Some popular American cheeses being imported to Europe are made by Marin French, Cypress Grove, Vermont Shepherd, and Fiscalini. In 2003, Rogue River Blue won the best blue cheese award at the World Cheese Awards. In 2007, Rogue River Blue became the fist raw milk cheese made in America to be approved for exporting into Europe. American made cheeses are extremely expensive in Europe. Rogue River Blue costs about 65 GBP (Great Britain Pounds) per kilo (which is over 2.2 lbs). This high price tag has not stopped Rogue River Blue from being a popular cheese in Europe.
Stephane Blohorn is the owner of Androuet, a chain of cheese shops in France whose website lists over 30 different American made cheeses. But they would not stock these cheeses because “The French go first to French cheese”. A new idea is beginning to change this mentality and that is terrior. This term has been common in the wine industry to describe a climate, soil, and location of a certain region which imparts unique qualities into the wine. This notion is becoming popular in the cheese world. Laure Dubouloz, manager of Maison Mons, an affineur near Lyon says “U.S. terrior is as good as the French”. He goes on to state that French cheesemakers are very traditional whereas American cheese makers attempt to create something new and different.
Thanksgiving is an American holiday which calls for American artisanal cheese. Some of my favorite American cheese and cheesemakers are:
Cypress Grove, makers of Purple Haze, Midnight Moon, Lamb Chopper, and Humboldt Fog.
Dante is an aged sheep’s milk cheese from Wisconsin.
Roth Kase Grand Cru Gruyere Surchoix
Rouge Creamery makers of Smokey Blue and Lavender cheddar.
Kenny’s farmhouse makers of Awe Brie
Tumalo farms makers of Pondhopper and Tumalo Classico
BeeHive Dairy in Utah makers of Sea Hive and Barely Buzzed
What is your favorite American cheese? Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for reading!!