The Rise, Fall, and Comeback of American Cheese

Anyway you slice it, American cheese has been having a hard time as of late. The melty, gooey squares wrapped perfectly in oily plastic sleeves — the highlight of childhood grilled cheese sandwiches and backyard cookouts — have been declining in sales for four years and counting, another supposed victim of millennial tastes.

But before American cheese was hated, it was respected and well-loved. The processed cheese that has become known as American cheese was first developed in Switzerland, not America, back in 1911. Cheese alchemists Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler heated up emmental — a hard, Swiss cheese — with sodium citrate in an attempt to create a cheese with a longer-standing shelf life. Not only did the addition of the sodium citrate achieve their goals, it also made for a smoother, velvet-like cheese.  

Stateside, Canadian-born James Lewis Kraft was experimenting with a similar process: heating and then cooling cheeses to form what was called a “warm cheese.” The “warm cheese” was easier to slice and made for convenient distribution. As Kraft’s business — which purchased cheeses wholesale and sold them locally (using a horse named Paddy and a rented cart) — grew, so did the desire to carry longer-lasting cheeses that could be shipped. Emulsifying salts were later added, which give American cheese its coveted melt as well as helped maintain its freshness. Additionally, a process to cool, slice, and package the singles was patented by Norman Kraft in 1944.

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