The Van Trump Report

How American Cheese Created One of Our Greatest Food Empires

American cheese is one of those food items which most people have a very strong opinion about. I’m talking about the highly meltable “pasteurized cheese product” that comes as individually wrapped slices, or gets sliced off a giant orangish cube at the deli counter. As much as the critics might hate it, even the biggest culinary talents in the world swear it’s a required ingredient for the perfect cheeseburger. It was not the first cheese to be dreamed up in America but is the only one that went on to fuel a multi-billion dollar food empire, all thanks to Canadian farmer and inventor of “American Cheese” James Lewis Kraft.

Cheese has been a part of America since before it was even founded thanks to early settlers that brought their treasured cultures and cheesemaking traditions with them from Europe. By the 19th century, American dairies and farmsteads were selling their cheese in England, the West Indies, and throughout North America, with production topping 106 million pounds of cheese each year by 1850. In 1851, cheesemaking was transformed by a man named Jesse Williams, who is credited with creating the first “factory” cheese in New York city.

It was in New York that a young James Kraft first got into the cheese business. The second of eleven children, Kraft was originally from a small farm in Ontario, Canada. After emigrating to Buffalo in 1902, he took a position at the Shefford Cheese Company where he became a partner in the company the following year. Later, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, to manage a branch of the company but while there, his partners eased him out of the business.

Literally stranded in the big city with just $65 to his name, Kraft invested in a wagon and a horse named “Paddy” and established his own business of buying cheese wholesale and selling it to local grocers. Business was initially slow to take off but within a few years Kraft was selling some 30 varieties of cheese package under his brand and was able to bring on several of his brothers as partners. In 1909, the business was incorporated under the name of J.L. Kraft & Bros. Co.

While the company was enjoying great success by any measure, Kraft continued experimenting with his cheese formulations in search of the perfect qualities. He had noticed one of the biggest problems facing the grocers he delivered to was spoilage, especially during the hot summer months. After extensive experimentation, Kraft solved the problem by using a method that ground, blended, and pasteurized cheese so that it could resist spoilage and be shipped long distances. He sold his cheese in four-ounce tin packages, shipping them as far away as India. U.S. armed forces bought six million pounds of his canned cheese during World War I, contributing to the firm’s $6 million in sales in 1917.

After the war Kraft continued to expand and innovate. In 1920, he purchased a Canadian cheese company, and by the end of the decade he had opened sales offices in Britain and Germany. Kraft also at one time owned over 100 dairies and established the world’s largest laboratory devoted solely to cheese research. One of the products of that research was a now-famous processed cheese loaf, wrapped in foil, and inserted into a wooden box, aka Velveeta Processed Cheese. Other famous processed cheese creations included Philadelphia Cream Cheese and a spread called Cheez Whiz, and of course the classic Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese!   

J. L. Kraft served as the company’s president from 1909 until his death in 1953. Between 1918 and 1945, Americans’ per capita consumption of cheese increased 50%, due in part to Kraft’s innovations. In 2020, the U.S. per capita consumption of American cheese amounted to about 15.6 pounds. (Sources: Biography, Illinois Hall of Fame, Thrillist, Northern Public Radio)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *