The famous Velveeta Cheese we all grew up with wasn’t so much discovered as it was invented, and even stranger is the fact that it’s actually the second cheese invented by Swiss immigrant Emil Frey. Frey emigrated to the US with his father in the late 1800’s. His father was a farmer and cheese maker, and both eventually ended up working for the Monroe Cheese Company in New York. 1889 the young Emil Frey was tasked with creating a cheese for the company that could be used in lieu of an imported cheese called Bismarck, and he did. His first cheese was the soft, spreadable, and amazing Liederkranz, and it was so popular the factory was shipping out more than a ton of cheese a day just to keep up with demand.
By 1918, the Monroe Cheese Company had opened another location that mainly produced Swiss cheese. They had a problem, though — it was difficult to sell cheese wheels that were damaged, and that was a lot of product they didn’t want to go to waste. Knowing Frey had already had success creating new cheeses, they sent him some samples and asked him to come up with a product that used these cheese scraps. After some serious experimentation — most of which was done on his own home stove — he came up with a product that not only used all the cheese scraps that might have otherwise gone to waste, but he also produced a cheese with a texture unlike any other. It was the texture — described as velvety — that prompted him to name the new concoction “Velveeta”.
Frey’s experients didn’t just lead him to a way to use cheese that would otherwise be thrown away, but it also led him to some weird science. Melt most “real” cheese and you’ll end up separating the oil from it in something of — to use the technical term — a yucky mess. Melt Velveeta, though, and you’ll get an amazing guilty pleasure that’s perfect for things like queso.
It’s all complicated science, but basically, what’s going on with real cheese when you heat it is the creation of a state where caseins (the proteins in milk) don’t mix with water. While that’s what makes cheese, well, cheese, it’s also what makes the fat separate from most cheeses when you melt it.
Frey was following in the footsteps of two men named Fritz Settler and Walter Gerber, Swiss researchers who were trying to find a cheese product that would melt. When they added sodium citrate to their cheesey experiments, they found they could melt cheese and reform it into the familiar, Velveeta-shaped block. That’s because the sodium citrate changes the state of those caseins, and allows them to form something much more soluble and resistant to heat. Kraft actually describes it as reversing the process that made cheese in the first place, then stopping at a point before it breaks down completely.
Crazy to think about, but in reality, the makers of Velveeta weren’t initially looking for a way to melt cheese down–they were looking for a way to put unused and broken bits of cheese back together.
In 1923, the Velveeta Cheese Company became its own corporation. It was successful for a while as its own company (which was based out of Monroe, NY), but in 1927, it was sold to Kraft Foods. Kraft wasted no time marketing the cheese product for its nutritional value, arguing the addition of whey made the cheese a kind of dairy wonder-product. The company even paid for a research study at Rutgers University to confirm Velveeta’s nutritional benefits. In 1931, the American Medical Association gave Velveeta its stamp of approval, citing that the product had all the necessary nutritional value to build “firm flesh.”
Velveeta’s popularity increased throughout the ’30s, ’40s and into the ’50s. Many business historians argue that it was great timing for Velveeta because from the 1920s to the 1940s, the US went from the Great Depression right into World War II… and that was on the heels of the first World War. Meaning, Velveeta, and Kraft’s Mac & Cheese, got a massive popularity boost at the time because their affordability allowed families to stretch their pennies even farther and still keep food on the table.
Advertising campaigns from the 1950s forward touted Velveeta’s mild flavor, ease of use and nutritional value. As far as cheese products went, Velveeta was a convenient food that was also mild enough to please most consumers, from “Grandad to two-year-olds” as one 1951 newspaper ad proclaimed. As a bonus, Velveeta was also marketed as a way to make those leftovers into something the family wanted to eat, and make it easier to guarantee nothing went to waste.
In 1978, Velveeta Shells and Cheese became the first of Kraft’s products to claim a portion of the “shelf-stable market,” which describes foods that normally would need refrigeration but processing allows them to remain stable at room temperature.
But who can argue with perhaps the most famous use for Velveeta… cheese dip or queso as it’s more officially called. Before, during, and after his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson never stopped being a Texan, and huge barbecues in his hometown of Stonewall were a regular occurrence. And it was Velveeta that was always on the menu, in the form of a queso dip made with Rotel tomatoes. In fact, Lady Bird Johnson contributed her version of the recipe in 1976 for a famous cookbook. Midwest and Texas-inspired galas continue to feature Velveeta on the menu. In 2005, the chairman of the Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball published his list of ingredients to a successful gathering. Third on the list (after chips and salsa) was 300 pounds of Velveeta.
I personally remember Mom making a lot of meals using Velveeta when I was a kid and I can’t remember a big family function or sporting event that didn’t include a crockpot full of Velveeta and Rotel cheese dip. Below is our simple family recipe.
64 oz Velveeta cheese
(4) 10 oz cans favorite rotel
1-2 pounds ground beef cooked, with 1 diced onion, seasoned with favorite seasoning including taco spice
1 bunch of green onions diced
Combine all together in crockpot cook till melted, serve with tortilla chips