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A Brief History
If you're like most Americans, you probably grew up on single-wrapped slices of cheese, or perhaps cheese that was foil-wrapped and came in a brightly-colored box, or bricks of cheese that were either white or orange or sometimes both. All of those styles of cheese are what we think of when we hear the phrase "American cheese."
Fortunately, the definition of American cheese has expanded to include cheeses made by small to medium-size cheesemakers around the country who pay close attention to milk quality and flavor, with an eye toward developing flavorful and beautiful-looking cheeses.
The fact is that American cheese was pretty much founded on manufacturing. While the Dutch and English came to New York and brought their cheesemaking traditions with them in the 1700s, small farm cheese production gave way to factory cheese production in the mid-1850s, in the town of Rome, New York. There, a man named Jesse Williams decided it would be more efficient to pool the local farmers' milk and make the cheese himself using a rudimentary assembly line.
Not too long after, in Ohio, a cheesemaker named Emil Frey figured out how to take cheese scraps, mostly from Swiss cheese-making, heat them, and add a few other ingredients to become process (also called processed) cheese. This new cheese did not need to be refrigerated. Even better, Americans embraced the predictable and somewhat bland flavor of the cheese known as Velveeta.
In Wisconsin, the Swiss and Germans began to make cheese in the mid 1800s, although not without some resistance. Originally, most of the Wisconsin farmers were wheat growers and wanted to stay that way. Dairying was more suitable for the climate, however, so eventually the local farmers made the shift to milk cows and cheesemaking. At about the same time as Williams had created a cheese factory in New York, Chester Hazen was doing the same thing in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, in California, the Spanish missionaries coming up from Mexico brought cows and dairy know-how with them. They made a cheese that essentially became the precursor to Monterey Jack and set the stage to become the second-largest cheese producing state in the country. (Wisconsin is currently first).
All of these immigrants gave American cheesemaking its beginnings, both large-scale and now small-scale once again. In this way, American cheesemaking can be viewed as a step back in time and yet a huge step forward in the quality of the cheese we produce. The cheeses being made in the United States are unquestionably world class.
Because of that, American cheeses are no longer disparaged (thankfully!). A visit to a cheese counter these days reveals this. It is here where you see customers clamoring for their locally made cheeses and also where you can see American cheeses sharing equal shelf space with their European counterparts. Ten years ago, the new American cheese was only just arriving. Now, not only is American cheese here to stay, but it continues its growth in numbers and variety and most important, in quality.