Velveeta Shortage Isn't a Shortage of History | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Whether or not there's a shortage of Velveeta, the processed cheese's history is long and complex. (SamaraSteele)

There is No Shortage of History When it Comes to Velveeta

In the event of a full-blown Velveeta shortage, here's a little history to ease your pain

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Just in time for the biggest dip day of the year, Kraft Foods announced that Americans might notice a distinct lack of Velveeta on their grocery store shelves. Following an announcement by the company, which noted that consumers in some states might have a hard time finding their liquid gold cheese in the coming weeks, the Internet wasted no time in completely freaking out, dubbing the shortage "Cheesepocalypse" on Twitter and creating imitation Velveeta-dip recipes on Lifehacker. There's even a website, Cheesepocalypse.org, which shows a map of the conversation about the Velveeta shortage by pulling geographic information via Twitter (currently, users are talking most about the shortage in places like Massachusetts and Maryland).* In reality, people looking to munch on a chip with dip might have to resort to traditional cheese for their melty concoctions--which, while reassuringly natural, will also mean less-than-velvety texture for a lot of Super Bowl dips.

It's an unfortunate reality that cheese, when melted, becomes imperfect--it pools oil (more, the fattier it is) and coagulates quickly, turning a once molten bowl of queso dip into a sad stringy mess. Seekers of gooey cheese can work around this by using a young cheese or a less-fatty cheese, but sometimes, standard hacks just won't cut it: enter Velveeta, a cheese named for the fact that it melts so smooth.

In reality, the makers of Velveeta weren't looking for a way to melt cheese down--they were looking for a way to put cheese back together. And, though it's owned by, and most heavily associated with, Kraft now, Velveeta was not one of James L. Kraft's cheese creations.

The Frankenstein behind the cheese creation was one Emil Frey, a Swiss cheesemaker who moved from Switzerland to upstate New York, where he worked in cheese factories in the late 1880s. While working at the Monroe Cheese Factory in Monroe, New York, Frey made a name for himself in cheese history by creating Liederkranz, an American-made version of Limburger, a particularly odoriferous semi-soft cow's milk cheese. Liederkranz was extremely successful, but the Monroe Cheese Company wasn't so lucky: in 1891, the business was foreclosed upon by a bank and bought by a New York City grocer named Jacob Weisl. Under Weisl's new leadership, the company opened up a second factory in Covington, Pennsylvania, which produced mostly Swiss cheese. Unfortunately, cheesemaking wasn't--and still isn't--a perfectly precise process, and the factory noticed that many wheels were broken or misshapen, wasting valuable product. Not wanting to let this waste fall by the wayside, the company shipped the broken bits back to Monroe, where Frey was charged with figuring out a way to make something valuable from the scraps.

Laura Werlin, cheese historian and author of The New American Cheese, speculates that the rise in cheese factories might have been the final push to save these broken bits. "Cheese manufacturing was new, meaning that it was done on a much smaller scale prior. On a smaller scale, if you lose a little bit here and there, it still has an impact on you the producer, but when you see it coming off the line on a larger scale and there’s all this waste piling up, maybe it seemed like, 'Wow, we're losing a lot here and it's time we try to think of something to do with it,'" she speculates.

Frey was tinkering with the recipe for Velveeta at an interesting time in American cheese history. "The whole 20th century, there’s so much technology and rapid change," says Paul Kindstedt, professor and author of Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization. "Velveeta is a very important part of the story." The Industrial Revolution of a century before had turned the world on its head, and cheese production was no different: small, farm-based cheesemakers of yesteryear had turned into large, industrial cheese operations. Moreover, the cheesemaking industry was crossing into science like never before, with the first processed cheeses coming out of Europe in the early part of the 20th century (from the Swiss tradition of melting cheeses for fondue). In America, James L. Kraft became perhaps the most recognizable face of processed cheese when he discovered that heated cheese with added emulsifying salts would form into a solid mass when cooled--and would keep much longer than non-processed cheese. Processed cheese was immediately welcomed by American consumers because of its consistent quality and increased stability.

In 1918, Frey figured out how to use similar technology to help recoup some of the factory's waste. He learned that by adding a by-product of cheesemaking called whey, which is the liquid released from curds during the cheesemaking process, to the leftover Swiss bits, he could create a very cohesive end-product. Frey named the product Velveeta, and in 1923, the Velveeta Cheese Company became its own corporation. It was successful for a while as its own company (which was based out of Monroe, NY), but in 1927, it was sold to Kraft Foods.
 
(UPDATE: A Kraft spokesperson, meanwhile, states that the company created Velveeta internally, using just Frey's name in the marketplace, but not his product.)

Kraft wasted no time marketing the cheese product for its nutritional value, arguing the addition of whey (which includes potentially desirable carbohydrates and minerals) made the cheese a kind of dairy wonder-product. The company even paid for a research study at Rutgers University to confirm Velveeta's nutritional benefits. In 1931, the American Medical Association gave Velveeta its stamp of approval, citing that the product had all the necessary nutritional value to build "firm flesh." 

Velveeta's popularity increased throughout the '30s, '40s and into the '50s--studies of consumer preference done in the 1930s found that two-thirds of Americans preferred processed cheese to natural cheese. But it wasn't just the product's advertised nutritional advantage that kept consumers interested.

"We as a culture have tended to gravitate toward foods that were—and are—predictable, unchanging and relatively bland," Werlin explains. "Processed cheese fit the bill, and it is also easy to use."

Advertising campaigns from the 1950s touted Velveeta's mild flavor, ease of use and nutritional value. As far as cheese products went, Velveeta was a convienent food that was also mild enough to please most consumers, from "Grandad to two-year-olds" as one 1951 newspaper ad proclaimed.

But for moms who wanted the convenience of Velveeta without the hassle of slicing it from the block (like the above video shows), the 1950s brought an alternative: Kraft DeLuxe Slices, which promised more convenience and none of the dried edges of block cheese. Slowly, Velveeta advertisements moved away from competing with the sliced cheese market, toward the now more recognizable iterations of Velveeta as a perfect melting cheese for dips or pastas.

In 1978, Velveeta Shells and Cheese became the first of Kraft's products to claim a portion of the "shelf-stable market," which describes foods that normally would need refrigeration but processing allows them to remain stable at room temperature. A commercial from the 1990s advertises the shells and cheese, with the help of some soulful crooners, by tapping into Velveeta's seemingly endless supply of wonder: it's not the same-old mashed potatoes or rice--it's something new and exciting.

Still, even with the introduction of Velveeta Shells and Cheese, the product only represented a small amount of Kraft's overall profit shares (currently, Velveeta is estimated to account for only 5 to 8 percent of the company's overall revenue). So, in the early 2000s, Kraft decided to enter into a mutually benefically partnership with ConAgra Foods. If when you think of Velveeta, you think of a cheesy queso chile dip, it's because of this very partnership. Neither Velveeta nor RoTel tomatoes and chiles, a ConAgra brand, represent enough of either company's total profits to earn much of their own share of the marketing budget. But by pairing the two items in advertising campaigns together, Kraft gained two things: advertising for Velveeta that it could afford, and a brand-association with a competitor.

Even as the cheese industry shows steady growth in the creation and sale of artisan cheeses, it's unlikely that Kraft's liquid gold will disappear (for more than a few cheesepocalyptic weeks) anytime soon. 

"For those many, many people who were raised on processed cheese, there is a memory connected with it that can’t be discounted in terms of its importance," Werlin says. "It’s a bite of the past, and that trumps flavor every time."

*Editors note: The original statement has been modified to clarify that Cheesepocalypse.org does not actually track the amount of Velveeta on store shelves, but acts as a "heat map" to see where conversations about Velveeta are happening around the country.

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