The first American Cheddar was made soon after 1620 around Plymouth by Pilgrim fathers who brought along not only cheese from the homeland but a live cow to continue the supply. Proof of our ability to manufacture Cheddar of our own lies in the fact that by 1790 we were exporting it back to England.
It was called Cheddar after the English original named for the village of Cheddar near Bristol. More than a century ago it made a new name for itself, Herkimer County cheese, from the section of New York State where it was first made best. Herkimer still equals its several distinguished competitors, Coon, Colorado Blackie, California Jack, Pineapple, Sage, Vermont Colby and Wisconsin Longhorn.
The English called our imitation Yankee, or American, Cheddar, while here at home it was popularly known as yellow or store cheese from its prominent position in every country store; also apple-pie cheese because of its affinity for the all-American dessert.
The first Cheddar factory was founded by Jesse Williams in Rome, New York, just over a century ago and, with Herkimer County Cheddar already widely known, this established "New York" as the preferred "store-boughten" cheese.
An account of New York's cheese business in the pioneer Wooden Nutmeg Era is found in Ernest Elmo Calkins' interesting book, They Broke the Prairies. A Yankee named Silvanus Ferris, "the most successful dairyman of Herkimer County," in the first decades of the 1800's teamed up with Robert Nesbit, "the old Quaker Cheese Buyer." They bought from farmers in the region and sold in New York City. And "according to the business ethics of the times," Nesbit went ahead to cheapen the cheese offered by deprecating its quality, hinting at a bad market and departing without buying. Later when Ferris arrived in a more optimistic mood, offering a slightly better price, the seller, unaware they were partners, and ignorant of the market price, snapped up the offer.
Similar sharp-trade tactics put too much green cheese on the market, so those honestly aged from a minimum of eight months up to two years fetched higher prices. They were called "old," such as Old Herkimer, Old Wisconsin Longhorn, and Old California Jack.
Although the established Cheddar ages are three, fresh, medium-cured, and cured or aged, commercially they are divided into two and described as mild and sharp. The most popular are named for their states: Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin. Two New York Staters are called and named separately, Coon and Herkimer County. Tillamook goes by its own name with no mention of Oregon. Pineapple, Monterey Jack and Sage are seldom listed as Cheddars at all, although they are basically that.
Brick is the one and only cheese for which the whole world gives America credit. Runners-up are Liederkranz, which rivals say is too close to Limburger, and Pineapple, which is only a Cheddar under its crisscrossed, painted and flavored rind. Yet Brick is no more distinguished than either of the hundred percent Americans, and in our opinion is less worth bragging about.
It is a medium-firm, mild-to-strong slicing cheese for sandwiches and melting in hot dishes. Its texture is elastic but not rubbery, its taste sweetish, and it is full of little round holes or eyes. All this has inspired enthusiasts to liken it to Emmentaler. The most appropriate name for it has long been "married man's Limburger." To make up for the mildness caraway seed is sometimes added.
About Civil War time, John Jossi, a dairyman of Dodge County, Wisconsin, came up with this novelty, a rennet cheese made of whole cow's milk. The curd is cut like Cheddar, heated, stirred and cooked firm to put in a brick-shaped box without a bottom and with slits in the sides to drain. When this is set on the draining table a couple of bricks are also laid on the cooked curd for pressure. It is this double use of bricks, for shaping and for pressing, that has led to the confusion about which came first in originating the name.
The formed "bricks" of cheese are rubbed with salt for three days and they ripen slowly, taking up to two months.
We eat several million pounds a year and 95 percent of that comes from Wisconsin, with a trickle from New York.
Colorado Blackie Cheese
A subtly different American Cheddar is putting Colorado on our cheese map. It is called Blackie from the black-waxed rind and it resembles Vermont State cheese, although it is flatter. This is a proud new American product, proving that although Papa Cheddar was born in England his American kinfolk have developed independent and valuable characters all on their own.
Coon cheese is full of flavor from being aged on shelves at a higher temperature than cold storage. Its rind is darker from the growth of mold and this shade is sometimes painted on more ordinary Cheddars to make them look like Coon, which always brings a 10 percent premium above the general run.
Made at Lowville, New York, it has received high praise from a host of admirers, among them the French cook, Clementine, in Phineas Beck's Kitchen, who raised it to the par of French immortals by calling it Fromage de Coon. Clementine used it "with scintillating success in countless French recipes which ended with the words gratiner au four et servir tres chaud. She made baguettes of it by soaking sticks three-eights-inch square and one and a half inches long in lukewarm milk, rolling them in flour, beaten egg and bread crumbs and browning them instantaneously in boiling oil."
Herkimer County Cheese
The standard method for making American Cheddar was established in Herkimer County, New York, in 1841 and has been rigidly maintained down to this day. Made with rennet and a bacterial "starter," the curd is cut and pressed to squeeze out all of the whey and then aged in cylindrical forms for a year or more.
Herkimer leads the whole breed by being flaky, brittle, sharp and nutty, with a crumb that will crumble, and a soft, mouth-watering pale orange color when it is properly aged.
Isigny is a native American cheese that came a cropper. It seems to be extinct now, and perhaps that is all to the good, for it never meant to be anything more than another Camembert, of which we have plenty of imitation.
Not long after the Civil War the attempt was made to perfect Isigny. The curd was carefully prepared according to an original formula, washed and rubbed and set aside to come of age. But when it did, alas, it was more like Limburger than Camembert, and since good domestic Limburger was then a dime a pound, obviously it wouldn't pay off. Yet in shape the newborn resembled Camembert, although it was much larger. So they cut it down and named it after the delicate French Creme d'lsigny.
Jack, California Jack and Monterey Jack
Jack was first known as Monterey cheese from the California county where it originated. Then it was called Jack for short, and only now takes its full name after sixty years of popularity on the West Coast. Because it is little known in the East and has to be shipped so far, it commands the top Cheddar price.
Monterey Jack is a stirred curd Cheddar without any annatto coloring. It is sweeter than most and milder when young, but it gets sharper with age and more expensive because of storage costs.
No native American cheese has been so widely ballyhooed, and so deservedly, as Liederkranz, which translates "Wreath of Song."
Back in the gay, inventive nineties, Emil Frey, a young delicatessen keeper in New York, tried to please some bereft customers by making an imitation of Bismarck Schlosskäse. This was imperative because the imported German cheese didn't stand up during the long sea trip and Emil's customers, mostly members of the famous Liederkranz singing society, didn't feel like singing without it. But Emil's attempts at imitation only added indigestion to their dejection, until one day—fabelhaft! One of those cheese dream castles in Spain came true. He turned out a tawny, altogether golden, tangy and mellow little marvel that actually was an improvement on Bismarck's old Schlosskäse. Better than Brick, it was a deodorized Limburger, both a man's cheese and one that cheese-conscious women adored.
Emil named it "Wreath of Song" for the Liederkranz customers. It soon became as internationally known as tabasco from Texas or Parisian Camembert which it slightly resembles. Borden's bought out Frey in 1929 and they enjoy telling the story of a G.I. who, to celebrate V-E Day in Paris, sent to his family in Indiana, only a few miles from the factory at Van Wert, Ohio, a whole case of what he had learned was "the finest cheese France could make." And when the family opened it, there was Liederkranz.
Another deserved distinction is that of being sandwiched in between two foreign immortals in the following recipe:
1 ripe Camembert cheese
⅛ pound imported Roquefort
¼ pound butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup cream
½ cup finely chopped olives
¼ cup canned pimiento
A sprinkling of cayenne
Depending on whether or not you like the edible rind of Camembert and Liederkranz, you can leave it on, scrape any thick part off, or remove it all. Mash the soft creams together with the Roquefort, butter and flour, using a silver fork. Put the mix into an enameled pan, for anything with a metal surface will turn the cheese black in cooking.
Stir in the cream and keep stirring until you have a smooth, creamy sauce. Strain through sieve or cheesecloth, and mix in the olives and pimiento thoroughly. Sprinkle well with cayenne and put into a pot to mellow for a few days, or much longer.
The name Schnitzelbank comes from "school bench," a game. This snappy-sweet pot is specially suited to a beer party and stein songs. It is also the affinity-spread with rye and pumpernickel, and may be served in small sandwiches or on crackers, celery and such, to make appetizing tidbits for cocktails, tea, or cider.
Like the trinity of cheeses that make it, the mixture is eaten best at room temperature, when its flavor is fullest. If kept in the refrigerator, it should be taken out a couple of hours before serving. Since it is a natural cheese mixture, which has gone through no process or doping with preservative, it will not keep more than two weeks. This mellow-sharp mix is the sort of ideal the factory processors shoot at with their olive-pimiento abominations. Once you've potted your own, you'll find it gives the same thrill as garnishing your own Liptauer.
The discovery of sandstone caves in the bluffs along the Mississippi, in and near the Twin Cities of Minnesota, has established a distinctive type of Blue cheese named for the state. Although the Roquefort process of France is followed and the cheese is inoculated in the same way by mold from bread, it can never equal the genuine imported, marked with its red-sheep brand, because the milk used in Minnesota Blue is cow's milk, and the caves are sandstone instead of limestone. Yet this is an excellent, Blue cheese in its own right.
Pineapple cheese is named after its shape rather than its flavor, although there are rumors that some pineapple flavor is noticeable near the oiled rind. This flavor does not penetrate through to the Cheddar center. Many makers of processed cheese have tampered with the original, so today you can't be sure of anything except getting a smaller size every year or two, at a higher price. Originally six pounds, the Pineapple has shrunk to nearly six ounces. The proper bright-orange, oiled and shellacked surface is more apt to be a sickly lemon.
Always an ornamental cheese, it once stood in state on the side-board under a silver bell also made to represent a pineapple. You cut a top slice off the cheese, just as you would off the fruit, and there was a rose-colored, fine-tasting, mellow-hard cheese to spoon out with a special silver cheese spoon or scoop. Between meals the silver top was put on the silver holder and the oiled and shellacked rind kept the cheese moist. Even when the Pineapple was eaten down to the rind the shell served as a dunking bowl to fill with some salubrious cold Fondue or salad.
Made in the same manner as Cheddar with the curd cooked harder, Pineapple's distinction lies in being hung in a net that makes diamond-shaped corrugations on the surface, simulating the sections of the fruit. It is a pioneer American product with almost a century and a half of service since Lewis M. Norton conceived it in 1808 in Litchfield County, Connecticut. There in 1845 he built a factory and made a deserved fortune out of his decorative ingenuity with what before had been plain, unromantic yellow or store cheese.
Perhaps his inspiration came from cone-shaped Cheshire in old England, also called Pineapple cheese, combined with the hanging up of Provolones in Italy that leaves the looser pattern of the four sustaining strings.
Sage, Vermont Sage and Vermont State
The story of Sage cheese, or green cheese as it was called originally, shows the several phases most cheeses have gone through, from their simple, honest beginnings to commercialization, and sometimes back to the real thing.
The English Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery has an early Sage recipe:
This is a species of cream cheese made by adding sage leaves and greening to the milk. A very good receipt for it is given thus: Bruise the tops of fresh young red sage leaves with an equal quantity of spinach leaves and squeeze out the juice. Add this to the extract of rennet and stir into the milk as much as your taste may deem sufficient. Break the curd when it comes, salt it, fill the vat high with it, press for a few hours, and then turn the cheese every day.
Fancy Cheese in America, lay Charles A. Publow, records the commercialization of the cheese mentioned above, a century or two later, in 1910:
Sage cheese is another modified form of the Cheddar variety. Its distinguishing features are a mottled green color and a sage flavor. The usual method of manufacture is as follows: One-third of the total amount of milk is placed in a vat by itself and colored green by the addition of eight to twelve ounces of commercial sage color to each 1,000 pounds of milk. If green corn leaves (unavailable in England) or other substances are used for coloring, the amounts will vary accordingly. The milk is then made up by the regular Cheddar method, as is also the remaining two-thirds, in a separate vat. At the time of removing the whey the green and white curds are mixed. Some prefer, however, to mix the curds at the time of milling, as a more distinct color is secured. After milling, the sage extract flavoring is sprayed over the curd with an atomizer. The curd is then salted and pressed into the regular Cheddar shapes and sizes.
A very satisfactory Sage cheese is made at the New York State College of Agriculture by simply dropping green coloring, made from the leaves of corn and spinach, upon the curd, after milling. An even green mottling is thus easily secured without additional labor. Sage flavoring extract is sprayed over the curd by an atomizer. One-half ounce of flavoring is usually sufficient for a hundred pounds of curd and can be secured from dairy supply houses.
A modern cheese authority reported on the current (1953) method:
Instead of sage leaves, or tea prepared from them, at present the cheese is flavored with oil of Dalmatian wild sage because it has the sharpest flavor. This piny oil, thujone, is diluted with water, 250 parts to one, and either added to the milk or sprayed over the curds, one-eighth ounce for 500 quarts of milk.
In scouting around for a possible maker of the real thing today, we wrote to Vrest Orton of Vermont, and got this reply:
Sage cheese is one of the really indigenous and best native Vermont products. So far as I know, there is only one factory making it and that is my friend, George Crowley's. He makes a limited amount for my Vermont Country Store. It is the fine old-time full cream cheese, flavored with real sage.
On this hangs a tale. Some years ago I couldn't get enough sage cheese (we never can) so I asked a Wisconsin cheesemaker if he would make some. Said he would but couldn't at that time—because the alfalfa wasn't ripe. I said, "What in hell has alfalfa got to do with sage cheese?" He said, "Well, we flavor the sage cheese with a synthetic sage flavor and then throw in some pieces of chopped-up alfalfa to make it look green."
So I said to hell with that and the next time I saw George Crowley I told him the story and George said, "We don't use synthetic flavor, alfalfa or anything like that."
" Then what do you use, George?" I inquired.
"We use real sage."
"Well, because it's cheaper than that synthetic stuff."
The genuine Vermont Sage arrived. Here are our notes on it:
Oh, wilderness were Paradise enow! My taste buds come to full flower with the Sage. There's a slight burned savor recalling smoked cheese, although not related in any way. Mildly resinous like that Near East one packed in pine, suggesting the well-saged dressing of a turkey. A round mouthful of luscious mellowness, with a bouquet—a snapping reminder to the nose. And there's just a soupçon of new-mown hay above the green freckles of herb to delight the eye and set the fancy free. So this is the véritable vert, green cheese—the moon is made of it! Vert véritable. A general favorite with everybody who ever tasted it, for generations of lusty crumblers.
Old-Fashioned Vermont State Store Cheese
We received from savant Vrest Orton another letter, together with some Vermont store cheese and some crackers.
This cheese is our regular old-fashioned store cheese—it's been in old country stores for generations and we have been pioneers in spreading the word about it. It is, of course, a natural aged cheese, no processing, no fussing, no fooling with it. It's made the same way it was back in 1870, by the old-time Colby method which makes a cheese which is not so dry as Cheddar and also has holes in it, something like Swiss. Also, it ages faster.
Did you know that during the last part of the nineteenth century and part of the twentieth, Vermont was the leading cheesemaking state in the Union? When I was a lad, every town in Vermont had one or more cheese factories. Now there are only two left—not counting any that make process. Process isn't cheese!
The crackers are the old-time store cracker—every Vermonter used to buy a big barrel once a year to set in the buttery and eat. A classic dish is crackers, broken up in a bowl of cold milk, with a hunk of Vermont cheese like this on the side. Grand snack, grand midnight supper, grand anything. These crackers are not sweet, not salt, and as such make a good base for anything—swell with clam chowder, also with toasted cheese....
It takes two pocket-sized, but thick, yellow volumes to record the story of Oregon's great Tillamook. The Cheddar Box, by Dean Collins, comes neatly boxed and bound in golden cloth stamped with a purple title, like the rind of a real Tillamook. Volume I is entitled Cheese Cheddar, and Volume II is a two-pound Cheddar cheese labeled Tillamook and molded to fit inside its book jacket. We borrowed Volume I from a noted littérateur, and never could get him to come across with Volume II. We guessed its fate, however, from a note on the flyleaf of the only tome available: "This is an excellent cheese, full cream and medium sharp, and a unique set of books in which Volume II suggests Bacon's: 'Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.'"
Since we began this chapter with all-American Cheddars, it is only fitting to end with Wisconsin Longhorn, a sort of national standard, even though it's not nearly so fancy or high-priced as some of the regional natives that can't approach its enormous output. It's one of those all-purpose round cheeses that even taste round in your mouth. We are specially partial to it.
Most Cheddars are named after their states. Yet, putting all of these thirty-seven states together, they produce only about half as much as Wisconsin alone.
Besides Longhorn, in Wisconsin there are a dozen regional competitors ranging from White Twin Cheddar, to which no annatto coloring has been added, through Green Bay cheese to Wisconsin Redskin and Martha Washington Aged, proudly set forth by P.H. Kasper of Bear Creek, who is said to have "won more prizes in forty years than any ten cheesemakers put together."
To help guarantee a market for all this excellent apple-pie cheese, the Wisconsin State Legislature made a law about it, recognizing the truth of Eugene Field's jingle:
Small matter in the Badger State when the affinity is made legal and the couple lawfully wedded in Statute No. 160,065. It's still in force:
Butter and cheese to be served. Every person, firm or corporation duly licensed to operate a hotel or restaurant shall serve with each meal for which a charge of twenty-five cents or more is made, at least two-thirds of an ounce of Wisconsin butter and two-thirds of an ounce of Wisconsin cheese.
Besides Longhorn, Wisconsin leads in Limburger. It produces so much Swiss that the state is sometimes called Swissconsin.