Everything you’ve assumed about cream cheese is probably wrong
Mashable bites into a creamy, nutty, gooey, and sometimes stinky world during our first-ever Cheese Week.
Tell me if this has ever happened to you: It’s late and you’re hungry. You open the fridge, pull out a tub of cream cheese, and stick your finger in it, licking it clean.
No? Just me?
What about this: You fall down an internet rabbit hole while researching the thick, velvety midnight snack only to discover that the expert on cream cheese is a rabbi. Then you call said rabbi and are told everything you assumed about cream cheese’s origin was wrong.
No? Still just me?
I grew up eating a lot of cream cheese — on bagels, on matzah, in Danishes, in cheesecake, in frosting, even rolled up in a little piece of lox like a salty, pink burrito. I had always assumed cream cheese was a Jewish invention. After all, ornate glass bowls filled with cream cheese, still in rectangular blocks from the tinfoil wrappers, bookended the buffet table at my grandparents’ temple after Saturday services. To end the Yom Kippur fast, the highest of holy days, we ate bagels and cream cheese.
Cream cheese’s history is unexpectedly the epitome of an American tale.
But cream cheese was invented by a goy from upstate New York, not Jews from the old country. And in many ways, cream cheese’s history is unexpectedly the epitome of an American tale.
Let’s start with the inventor. The year: Well, that’s debatable, but sometime in the 1870s.
William Lawrence, a farmer in upstate New York, is making Neufchatel cheese, just like many of his neighbors. He’s packing up rolls of this creamy French cheese and shipping it to the city. He’s approached by grocer Park & Tilford, the Dean & DeLuca of its time, to create an even richer cheese that could be sold at a higher price.
“He’s curdled the milk, pressed all the liquid out, and now he puts cream into it. What does he call it? He calls it cream cheese,” said Jeffrey A. Marx, who serves as rabbi at The Santa Monica Synagogue and has written extensively about the history of cream cheese. What’s more American than reinventing something from Europe and adding more fat?
At first, cream cheese is a delicacy, something you’d get at a fancy restaurant in New York City. Several upstate dairy farmers start making it, too, driving competition. By 1889, cream cheese costs 30 cents a pound, while Muenster and Parmesan sell, per pound, for 13 cents and 23 cents, respectively, according to “Eating up: The origins of bagel and lox,” an article Marx wrote for the book Tastes of Faith: Jewish Eating in the United States. In 1909, the cost of cream cheese jumped to 40 cents per pound.
Cheese broker Alvah Reynolds approaches Lawrence offering to distribute his cream cheese and suggests using the brand name Philadelphia Cream Cheese on the packaging. Philadelphia was known as the place to get the best cheese back then. It’s misleading marketing — and again, very American.
Reynolds sells cheese faster than Lawrence can make it. He contracts with other dairy farmers to fill orders, but uses the same Philadelphia label. He eventually buys farms of his own, creating the Phenix Cheese Company.
Don’t cry for Lawrence though — cream cheese drove his rags to riches story. He began as a farmhand from a poor family, married the farmer’s daughter, invented cream cheese, and eventually became the mayor of Chester, New York, an influential man living the American dream.
In 1905, the Phenix Company heavily markets cream cheese and over time expands throughout the U.S., eventually merging with the Kraft Cheese Company in 1928, according to Kraft. On its tubs of cream cheese, Kraft writes “since 1872.” A local obituary for Lawrence also notes he started manufacturing cream cheese in the fall of that year, but Marx thinks that’s wrong. It’s likely when Lawrence began making cheese, not when he invented cream cheese, which was closer to 1875-1877, according to Marx’s research. When asked about the date of cream cheese’s birth, Lawrence kept pushing it back the older he got, Marx quipped.
In the 1920s, the price of cream cheese drops. It’s around this time that Jews first see ads for “Yankee Cream Cheese” in the Yiddish Press. Breakstone’s — a cheese distributor, and later a manufacturer, still well-known in New York — sold a cream cheese with an even higher fat content and advertised it to New York Jews, with copy like, “your blintzes will taste much better with Breakstone’s cream cheese,” Marx said. (Breakstone’s is how Marx got tangled up in cream cheese to begin with. When a family member told him his distant relatives the Breakstone brothers invented cream cheese, he looked into it, discovered it wasn’t true, and years later he’s still researching the white spread.)
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the great bagel-cream cheese love affair begins. It’s still some time before lox joins in to complete the holy trinity. The trio gets associated with Judaism in the 1940s, mostly, with phrases like the “bagels and lox crowd” gaining steam.
“Before the 1920s, the bagel is hard like a pretzel,” Marx said, describing the bread that came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe. “Not only is it hard, it’s thin. Imagine a round pretzel ring about a quarter-inch thick, with a hole large enough to literally put your wrist through …. You can’t schmear anything on early bagels. First of all, you can’t split them, they’re hard as rocks, and we have to wait until the hole gets smaller.”
By using wheat flour, plentiful in America, rather than rye flour, widely available in Europe, the bagel gets softer, and the hole snaps back into a smaller shape.
“It’s absolutely fascinating how it becomes an iconic Jewish food. The only thing Jewish about the whole shebang is the bagel, and even that’s not really Jewish,” Marx said, noting that other cultures produce breads similar to the bagel, too.
Interest in cream cheese grows beyond bagels, as well. While “cream cheese cake” and “cream cheese pie” recipes existed in the 1900s, a 1929 World’s Fair win by a cheesecake made with cream cheese from a New York deli owner spurred its use in New York Cheesecake for decades to come, according to “Eating up.”
Fast forward to today, and cream cheese has wiggled its way into the Americanized versions of several international dishes, including sushi rolls and crab rangoon. Let’s not forget the ubiquity of cream cheese frosting. The earliest print references to covering carrot cake in cream cheese can be found in American recipe books from the 1960s, according to the World Carrot Museum, a virtual collection of carrot facts and history.
Cheese balls, often a mixture of cream cheese and sweet or savory ingredients, also become a staple on American holiday dinner tables, said Tenaya Darlington, who runs the cheese blog Madame Fromage and is the restaurant cheese director at Tria, a wine, cheese, and beer bar in Philadelphia.
It’s as if cream cheese is one of the binding ingredients in the American melting pot.
“I think of it like the Jell-O of cheese because you can keep it around for a long time.”
“I think of it kind of like the Jell-O of cheese because you can keep it around for a long time. If you want a quick dessert, you can … make a frosting out of it or oh my gosh put it between puff pastry with some pie filling. It’s just so flexible,” Darlington said. “It’s sweet, creamy, and as Americans, it appeals to our palates, and it appeals to us because it’s so widely available.”
She thinks the next chapter of cream cheese’s history is upon us. Small producers of cream cheese that use fewer stabilizers and tout organic and GMO-free ingredients are popping up.
“There’s this whole realm of other supermarket cream cheeses now that aren’t as shelf stable, but they’re filling this market gap for natural, organic cream cheese,” she said.
If you shop at specialty stores like Whole Foods or Mom’s Organic Market you may notice them, but like most health-store alternatives, they’re more expensive than Kraft’s silver tubs.
All this is a far cry from Lawrence’s dairy farm, a birthplace that’s been skipped over in favor of myths and assumptions.
“Food memory is very tricky. It’s tied up always with nostalgia,” Marx noted. “We attach all sorts of stories and multiply that by a decade or two and no one remembers anymore where it comes from.”