Kraft Singles: A Meditation

Back in January, I revisited the Kraft Single. It was for class. A class I taught at Tria on the history of Cheddar. The idea started as a joke – one that Tria’s Michael McCauley made when he and I first conceived of the course topic. The more I thought about the Single, the more it seemed like a logical starting point. If America has a quasi-indigenous cheese, it just might be this cellophane-wrapped slab.

But how did this happen? How did something so bland, so slim and meager, come to represent American cheese?

Keep in mind that Cheddar came to America with the Puritans who carried the recipe with them from England. Cheese was primarily a cottage industry back then, made in farmhouse kitchens by farm wives. It probably looked more like Vermont’s Cabot Clothbound Cheddar — a rugged beauty, smeared with lard and bundled in cloth. Traditional Cheddar, after all, was developed as a way to store milk which would otherwise spoil. Records of the recipe go as far back as the 12th century.

Then, lo, in 1851, the first cheese factory opened in Rome, New York. Oh, Rome, you changed everything. Within a few years, New York became a cheese megalopolis. Everyone and their neighbor made cheese, to the tune of 500-plus factories. Crazy, right? New York even sent Cheddar back to the crown. In Britain, this little import became known as “American Cheese.”

It didn’t take long for James L. Kraft to make like a honey badger. He didn’t care. He just wanted to make some cheese.

Kraft moved down from Canada to make his fortune as a wholesaler. He began packing cheese in jars, even cans. In 1916, he patented “processed cheese” that did not need refrigeration. By 1930, Kraft owned 30% of the cheese market in America, which paved the way for Whiz in the 1950s and the Single in the 1960s. Kraft’s Single was perfect for the busy housewife entering the workforce. As The Beatles hummed’n strummed, British Cheddar – the real deal, the precursor to manufactured cheese – disappeared.

Of course, I’m here to tell you that you can still find some traditional British-style Cheddar in America. At our Cheddar class, we ate our way from Kraft to Keen’s. Here’s the line-up from Tria’s Cheddar sampling:

  • Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (VT)
  • Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar Reserve (WI)
  • Beecher’s Marco Polo Reserve with Peppercorns (WA/NY)
  • Isle of Mull Cheddar (Scotland)
  • Montgomery’s Clothbound Cheddar (England)
  • Keen’s Farmhouse Cheddar (England)

If you’re curious to try a unique American Cheddar, look for Bleu Mont Dairy’s Bandaged Cheddar Reserve. This one-of-a-kind beauty from Wisconsin is making appearances at cheese counters on the East Coast, and it’s probably very close to those early Puritan Cheddars first made in the colonies. Bleu Mont is made by a single maker, Willi Lehner, who operates out of a small, wind-powered cave. He buys grass-fed organic milk from Uplands, makers of the legendary Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Willi’s Bandaged Cheddar is nothing like a cellophane-wrapped Single. Different market, different ingredients, different expectations. Still, the comparison makes me reflect on American cheese in new ways. We’re still very much on the frontier.

Interested in cheese history? Keep your eye out for the forthcoming book by cheese educator Paul Kinstedt. His new work, Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization, is due out in March.

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3 Responses to “Kraft Singles: A Meditation”
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