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.
“American cheese has been part of American history for over 100 years, since J.L. Kraft patented it in 1916,” Anne Field, Kraft’s senior director of brand building, says. “He was looking for ways to bring safe, fresh, and convenient cheese to millions of Americans at a time when that wasn’t the norm for most people. That benefit allowed American troops to enjoy sustenance and the taste of home during WWI and WWII.”
American cheese served all the purposes it was intended for: It was convenient, lasted a long time, and tasted enough like cheese for Americans to overlook its processed nature. As Field confirmed, it was shipped overseas for the troops and made its way to bologna and cheese sandwiches all across America. In fact, the fact that it came prepackaged in a society that was wholly benefitting from an industrialized America was a positive; it was seen as a luxury to be able to purchase the “De Luxe” Kraft slices, which were touted as “perfect” -- in shape, flavor, and convenience -- in 1950s Kraft advertisements.
Over time though, American cheese culture expanded. Once viewed as elitist and inaccessible, cheeses that were considered fancy have now become more attainable and approachable. Blue cheese is celebrated on burgers, goat cheese is folded into mashed potatoes, and brie, gouda, and gorgonzola all commonly find their way onto decorated cheese plates.
Not only that, but Americans have grown to avoid processed foods and opt for whole, real ingredients that are easier to understand and trace. In a more health-conscious society, consumers want to know where their food is coming from -- and how their bodies will process it. The heyday of neon orange-powdered instant mac has been replaced with a white cheddar option (complete with organic pasta). There are talented cheesemakers all across America delivering interesting, new cheeses that are flavorful and transparent in their production. Instead of optioning for the once-desired American cheese, everyone now seems to have a negative opinion on the flimsy, bright orange squares.