Almanac: Kraft’s processed cheese

Almanac: Processed cheese

And now a page from our “Sunday Morning” Almanac: December 11th, 1874, 142 years ago today … the day James Lewis Kraft was born on a small farm in the Canadian province of Ontario.

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J.L. Kraft’s first cheese wagon, Chicago, 1903. Stockton Township Public Library

As a young man, Kraft went into the cheese business, ending up in Chicago, where he sold his wares from a wagon for a while.

In 1914, Kraft’s company purchased its first cheese factory in Stockton, Illinois.

His big breakthrough came two years later when he received a patent for his “improved process of sterilizing cheese” so that it would keep without spoiling. Kraft’s processed cheese quickly became a huge success.

The U.S. Army bought six million pounds of it during World War I, and millions of pounds more during World War II.

In-between came a product welcomed by families struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, which were originally put together in 1937 by one of Kraft’s sales reps.

A few years ago, Kraft Food’s Eileen Sharkey Rosenfeld told the Mac & Cheese tale to “Sunday Morning”:

“The idea of having both things in one package was just revolutionary,” Rosenfield said.

And that brings us to another staple of the American diet: the grilled cheese sandwich, with processed cheese dominating one category at the 2013 Grilled Cheese Invitational. Our Bill Geist spoke with founder Tim Walker:

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“There’s the Love American Style, which is just white bread, orange cheese and butter. No additional ingredients.”

“How do you stand out in that category?” Geist asked.

“Grilling acumen,” was the reply.

And though cheese purists may argue that processed cheese isn’t REAL cheese, that’s hardly hurt its popularity. 

When it comes to simplicity, practicality, and a long shelf life, processed cheese stands alone.