The Liederkranz Lament

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Exasperated, as he often was, by the French genius for dividing into multiple and irreconcilable political factions, Charles de Gaulle is reported to have once thrown up his hands and lapsed into apparent non sequitur . “Nobody,” he declared, “can simply bring together a nation that has 265 different kinds of cheese.”

Yet the greatest French statesman of this century seems truly to have discovered an underlying correlation between cheese and political instability. Consider the United States. It has produced only three great, uniquely American cheeses: Monterey Jack, brick, and Liederkranz. But since 1789 it has also flourished under a single constitution. Meanwhile, France, with hundreds of cheeses, has run through three kingdoms, two empires, and five republics.

Even aside from cheese, wholly North American foodstuffs are notably few in number, the cranberry and maple syrup being about all the native delicacies we have to offer. This is not to say, however, that the United States has had little effect on the world’s eating habits. Far from it. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the United States took what had always been a necessity and sometimes an art, food preparation, and turned it into an industrial process. The world’s dinner tables have not been the same since.

Soft drinks were invented in this country by businessmen, not chefs. So were canned soups, nondairy coffee creamers, breakfast cereals, and—may the Lord forgive us—TV dinners. Coca-Cola may well be the most famous American product in the world.

Even many basically foreign foods have been so industrialized as to seem, now, as American as apple pie. Ketchup originated in Southeast Asia and was brought to the West by the sauce-loving British. But it was the H. J. Heinz Company that put the tomato-based variety on the tables of six contintents. McDonald’s turned a meat-patty sandwich into a multibillion-dollar global capitalist triumph.

The essence of industrialized food, of course, is uniformity and vast production. Pepsi-Cola tastes exactly the same in Boston, Brisbane, and Buenos Aires, and PepsiCo goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to see that it does. Ritz crackers have been turned out in the millions by Nabisco every day since 1934. The essence of great cheeses, however, is idiosyncrasy and, almost always, very limited production. For natural cheese is a living thing.

What makes cheese possible is the happy property of milk protein that it coagulates in the presence of acids and other chemicals produced by microorganisms. The protein and fat form curds, allowing most of the liquid to be separated out. The curds are then molded and stored while the microorganisms continue to work their magic, slowly producing the flavor, aroma, and consistency of each type of cheese.

It is the infinite variety of these microorganisms that makes for the infinite variety of cheeses. But their existence wasn’t even discovered until the seventeenth century, and their role in cheese making wasn’t learned until a little over a hundred years ago. Only then could cheese making begin to change from an art to a process.

According to an official publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, processed cheeses are “made by grinding fine, and mixing together by heating and stirring one or more cheeses of the same or two or more varieties, together with an added emulsifying agent, into a homogeneous plastic mass.”

The homogeneous plastic mass (the Department of Agriculture certainly has a way with words) is then cut into uniform chunks or squeezed by rollers into thin sheets, cut into squares, and packaged. The result is a nearly sterile, absolutely consistent product whose chief virtue is a notably long shelf-life. Of course, by this point processed cheese is to real cheese about what military music is to music.

But if the technology of processed cheese is very new, the history of natural cheese is very ancient. It doubtless was discovered by accident and came to be exploited as a way to extend the period of the year in which dairy products could form a part of the human diet. Originally milk was available only when the herds were bearing young in the spring. Turned into cheese, however, it remained edible for months, in some cases years.

When Europeans began settling the New World, they brought with them the cheese-making know-how that had developed over many thousands of years. Each immigrant group also brought a taste for the particular cheeses it had known at home, and cheese makers necessarily catered to these tastes. That is why this country has always produced so many excellent imitations of European cheeses and so few native American ones.

One major immigrant group in the nineteenth century was the Germans, many of whom settled in New York City, especially in an area of Manhattan that was once known as Kleindeutschland—Little Germany—and is now called the East Village. As early as the 1850’s German immigrants accounted for more than half the city’s bakers, confectioners, tobacconists, and, of course, delicatessen owners.

Many of these middle-class Germans were partial to a cheese they had known in the old country called Bismarck Schlosskäse (castle cheese). Schlosskäse is a soft, ripened cheese that is molded in brick-shaped molds about four inches by one and a half by one. It is intensely flavorful and, at least for those who don’t like it, intensely smelly.