The genius of James L. Kraft, the Canadian-born founder of Kraft Foods, lay not in artisanal cheesemaking but in taking a milk-based product and making it long-lasting, consistent in quality and easy to slice. In 1916, after a series of experiments at his Chicago boardinghouse, the former grocery clerk received a patent for “process cheese”: a sterilized product made by heating Cheddar at 175 degrees for 15 minutes while whisking it continuously. The invention helped turn cheese into a shippable commodity with a longer shelf life — and transform Kraft’s company into a cheese empire. James’s brother Norman, who became Kraft’s head of research, wanted to make things even easier for the consumer by precutting the cheese into slices. The idea was easier to conceive than to execute: process cheese was packaged and sealed while still fluid and hot, and cutting hot cheese was like trying to slice molten lava.
Around 1935, Norman began to imagine a solution. He poured some liquefied cheese onto a cold stainless-steel table. He then flattened the cheese out with an iced rolling pin. Norman was able to slice it. “It took another 15 years for Norman and Kraft engineers to perfect the technology and bring the product to market,” says Becky Haglund Tousey, associate director of archives for Kraft Foods. The manufacturing difficulties were solved in part by an elaborate contraption that ran liquid, pasteurized cheese through a “chill roll” — a machine that resembled a large rolling pin. The roll created a long ribbon of cheese that was then cut into three-inch-square slices. Eight slices were stacked on top of one another and packaged to create a peelable block. When “Kraft De Luxe Process Slices” made their debut in 1950, Modern Packaging magazine raved that “all of the handicaps of store-sliced cheese — variations in thickness of slices, slivered edges, imperfect packages, drying out, curled ends, etc. — are overcome.” The Progressive Grocer noted that “many grocers report cheese sales increases as high as 150 percent.”
The cheese single’s finishing touch came from outside Kraft. In August 1956, an Indiana-born engineer named Arnold Nawrocki shocked the processed-cheese world with a patent for an “apparatus for producing individually wrapped cheese slices.” Nawrocki noted that for products like Kraft De Luxe and its imitators, the “cheese slices often stick together, and a consumer has considerable difficulty in trying to separate the individual slices without tearing them.” His machine showed an elegant method for wrapping “a slicelike slab of cheese in a transparent, pliant wrapper.” Kraft later developed a similar technology, and individually wrapped Kraft Singles were introduced in 1965.
JUST SAY CHEESE
Elaine Khosrova, editor of the specialty-cheese magazine Culture, talks about processed cheese.
Why were Kraft Singles so popular?
After World War II, food production was going industrial. Cheese was a part of that. If it came from a factory and was standardized, it was considered a high-quality food. I have a soft spot for Kraft Singles. I grew up on them in the 1960s. My mother made me bologna-and-cheese sandwiches.