Cover illustration. Cornell Reading Course for the Home. April 1920.
© Div. Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library
There was a time when the term “American Cheese” pretty much just meant cheddar.
“American Cheese” (singular) is often used as a generic term for cheeses based on cheddar, but processed for longer shelf life, spreadability and / or lower cost with added sweeteners, thickeners, colourings and waters. Consequently, American cheese has become amongst foodies a catchall phrase for “cheese with no taste.”
An awakening, though, has started in America. Quality, artisanal cheese makers have sprung up, particularly on the Pacific Coast. These cheeses aren’t exported because their output is so small, and it is easily taken care of by their having access already to one of the world’s biggest cheese markets without going to the trouble of doing business internationally. Most are these artisanal American cheeses are sold in specialty shops, not supermarkets.
The artisanal American Cheeses springing up are imitative of European cheeses, as American cheesemakers striving to achieve European-style analogues, in the same way that the American wine industry did for decades. While, though, a lot of American industrial cheeses out and out steal European cheese names with no repercussions, artisanal ones are more “gentlemanly”: they might compare themselves with and aim to be a Camembert, but they generally won’t call themselves a Camembert.
There’s no general public awareness in America of these better quality cheeses, though, let alone any general international awareness. Though American cheese quality is on the same level as Canadian cheese quality, it’s American cheese quality that gets bashed internationally (perhaps because the spotlight’s always on the Americans, even when they don’t want it.)
The two places in North America where cheesemaking is undergoing a renaissance are the American Pacific Coast, and the Canadian province of Québec. Such a renaissance has been possible because in the US and in Québec farmers are allowed to make cheese from their own milk, whereas in most places in Canada they are not.
The quality of these small output artisanal cheeses is generally rated quite high. But if they were exported to Europe, they probably couldn’t compete on a combined quality / price level with European cheeses. It wouldn’t be the quality that would throw the equation off though, it would be the price by the time they got there.
Canadian cheeses are able to sell in Europe at competitive prices owing to a strong base of domestic protectionism in its own cheese market.
In America, you can buy a wide variety of cheeses from other countries — Canadian, Irish, European, etc. This in contrast to its northern neighbour, Canada, where almost all cheeses sold in Canada are Canadian-made, even if they do have European names stuck on them.
Despite the strong growth of regional artisanal cheeses, the centre of American main-stream industrial cheese production remains the state of Wisconsin.
Literature & Lore
The World Championship Cheese Contest is sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1957 (named at first the “Cheddar Championship Contest”, it was elevated to world level in 1972. By the 1990s, Europeans were entering and had come to dominate the contest.
Friedrick, Joanne. American-made cheese earns an ‘A’ with retailers. Yarmouth, Maine: Gourmet News. June 2004.