While they had plenty of other culinary talents, the Native Americans were not a cheese-making people. It was the pilgrims who brought cheese and cows with them on the Mayflower and got the whole thing started this side of the pond.
Most early American cheeses were made at home, to be eaten at home, or sold in local markets. And while a variety of European styles persisted in non-commercial cheesemaking, American industry soon honed in on a single type: cheddar. It was uniquely sturdy and adaptable, and it proved manageable in colonial conditions. It also tasted great despite the seasonal extremes in temperature and humidity that other European cheeses couldn't endure.
So Americans got serious about cheddar; by 1790 they were exporting wheels back to England, the original motherland of the breed. The trade grew, and revolutionary patriots became proud of their "American cheese." British connoisseurs looked down on it, though, judging "Yankee cheese" inferior to traditional cheddars. The poor reputation made American cheese cheap, and what the aristocrats snubbed the British commoners quickly bought up.
The Craft of Kraft
Cheesemaking was transformed forever when Jesse Williams created the first American cheese factory in 1851, in New York. It started as a father-son venture -- conceived, in part, to cover for his son's poor cheesemaking skills. By buying up milk from surrounding herds and pooling it to make cheese at one location, Williams made commercial cheesemaking more viable and American cheese more reliably decent. From New York outwards, cheese factories spread like smallpox. Generic, factory cheddar became so common that Americans simply called it "store cheese," or "yellow cheese."
Then came James L. Kraft, who in 1903 moved from Canada to Chicago with $65, bought a horse and wagon, and started wholeselling cheese. To reduce waste, Kraft tried packaging cheese in jars, and then began experimenting with cheese canning -- an idea the Swiss had been tinkering with already. Then he tried something completely different. By shredding refuse cheddar, re-pasteurizing it, and mixing in some sodium phosphate, Kraft produced the strange wonder we now know as American process cheese (patented in 1916). It was an immediate commercial success, and a boon to American soldiers in the World Wars. By 1930 over 40% of cheese consumed in the U.S. was Kraft's -- and that was in spite of its relatively high price. Thanks to clever advertising, Kraft was able to charge more in exchange for a promise of safety and consistency, even though the product was derived from inferior cheese.
Some Fantastic Plastic
Meanwhile, "natural" cheesemakers lobbied to have Kraft's product formally distinguished from real cheese; the government acquiesced and established guidelines for labeling cheese-like products. Of the "pasteurized process" family: "American cheese" is a mild, meltable, and stable concoction of natural cheese bits mixed with emulsifying agents to make, in the language of the law, "a homogeneous plastic mass." "Cheese foods" and "cheese product" are similar, but each have less "natural" cheese content than American cheese -- and, therefore, longer shelf lives.
Over a hundred and fifty years, what was known as "American cheese" moved from farmhouse to factory to laboratory, from wheels to waxed blocks to single-serving packets. In the last few decades we've started importing more cheeses of more varieties; and a new wave of "artisanal" cheesemakers promise to revamp the image of American dairy. Still, it's hard to believe that the generic title, "American cheese," will ever be wrenched from the most generic of all cheeses, the topping on Big Macs and grilled cheese sandwiches. What other product could epitomize with such grace this essential tendency in culinary history and the American identity?