The Liederkranz Lament

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New York City delicatessens began importing the cheese to meet demand, but unfortunately, like all soft cheeses, Schlosskäse has a very limited lifespan. In the late nineteenth century it was often spoiled and unsalable by the time it arrived in New York by ship from Germany.

Adolph Tode, the owner of a very popular deli in New York, wanted to do something about that. Tode also owned the Monroe Cheese Company, in Monroe, New York, about twenty-five miles northwest of the city. In 1889 he asked his cheese makers to try to duplicate Bismarck Schlosskäse.

A twenty-two-year-old Swiss immigrant named Emile Frey took on the challenge, although he had been with the company only a year. He tried for two years to come up with an acceptable substitute. Then, in one of the inspired accidents with which the history of cheese is littered, he inadvertently invented a whole new cheese. It had the same soft, creamy texture as Schlosskäse and an equally pronounced aroma but quite a different, indeed unique, flavor.

Tode thought it was delicious and ordered more, but Frey, to his horror, found he could not duplicate it. For the next two years Frey searched for the gastronomic equivalent of the lost chord, and at last, in late 1892, he found it again.

Tode tried the new cheese out on his fellow members of a German singing club in New York called the Liederkranz Society. A distinguished group, the society included Theodore Roosevelt and Carl Schurz among its members. They were enthusiastic, and Tode promptly named Prey’s discovery in their honor.

He started selling the new Liederkränz cheese in his deli, and soon other deli owners were ordering it from the Monroe Cheese Company as well. By the 1920s demand around the country had become so great that Monroe’s local milk supply was no longer adequate to meet it. In 1926 the company decided to move to Ohio and set up a brand-new, state-of-the-art cheese factory in the town of Van Wert, to produce the cheese that had made it famous and that now had a national market.

The decision to kill one of only three great American cheeses was so casually made that there’s no record of it in corporate archives.

But when the new plant produced its first batch of Liederkranz, the result was a disaster. It not only didn’t taste like Liederkranz but tasted terrible. Emile Frey realized that the company’s new spic-and-span facilities were a little too spic-and-span for their own good.

He quickly had the wooden parts of the old factory, deeply embedded with countless generations of the right microorganisms, dismantled and shipped to Van Wert, where he installed them in the new factory. Then he spread Liederkranz cheese all over the gleaming walls in hopes of permeating the very fabric of the new factory with the right bugs. To Prey’s immense relief the second batch tasted like Liederkranz.

In 1929 the Borden Company bought out the Monroe Cheese Company. Although Liederkranz only amounted to a tiny part of Borden’s vast product line, the company continued to produce it with all the care and passion a great cheese demands.

Nor did Borden sell it only at fancy stores. For nearly sixty years, as momand-pop grocery stores gave way to supermarkets, and Fannie Farmer to Julia Child, one of the world’s great cheeses could always be found, most improbably, at the nation’s ordinary dairy counters, nestled right between the waxy, bright orange processed American cheese slices and the equally bright orange slabs of Velveeta.

But today, a hundred years after its invention, Liederkranz is no more. In the corporate restructuring that so marked the 1980s, Borden sold its natural cheese division to General Foods in 1982. In 1985 General Foods was bought by Philip Morris, and four years later was merged with Philip Morris’s Kraft division into Kraft General Foods. At some point in this process, General Foods stopped making Liederkranz. The decision was apparently taken so casually that there is not even a record of it in the corporate archives. Unless somewhere there is some frozen Liederkranz that could be used to re-create it, the cheese is lost forever.

It is ironic that just as the country was beginning to develop a serious gastronomy of its own and a rapidly increasing interest in American, not imitation European, cheeses, one of the quiet glories of the American table vanished in the snap of a corporate decision. Hardly anyone even noticed.

In France it would have brought down the government.