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.

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.