The origins of cream cheese are a surprisingly American story.
But cream cheese was invented by a goy from upstate New York, not Jews from the old country. In many respects, the history of cream cheese is the essence of an American narrative.
Let us begin with the creator. The year is: It is arguable, although it was sometime in the 1870s.
Like many of his friends, William Lawrence, a farmer in upstate New York, makes Neufchatel cheese. He’s packaging rolls of this creamy French cheese to transport to the metropolis. 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.
William Lawrence’s trademark for Neufchatel and cream cheese in 1881.
“He’s curdled the milk, squished out all the liquid, and now he’s adding cream to it. What does he refer to it as? 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 glance, cream cheese seems to be a delicacy, something you’d get at a posh New York City restaurant. Other upstate dairy farms begin producing it as well, increasing rivalry. 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(Opens in a new tab). (Opens in a new window) Cream cheese’s price increased to 40 cents per pound in 1909.
Alvah Reynolds, a cheese broker, contacts Lawrence and offers to market his cream cheese under the brand name Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Before then, Philadelphia was regarded for having the greatest cheese. It’s deceptive marketing – and, once again, very American.
Reynolds sells cheese more quickly than Lawrence can produce it. He works with other dairy farms to satisfy orders, but he always utilizes the Philadelphia label. He finally buys his own farms and establishes the Phenix Cheese Company.
Don’t weep for Lawrence, however; cream cheese was the catalyst for his rags to riches narrative. 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.
According to Kraft, the Phenix Corporation began extensively marketing cream cheese in 1905 and gradually expanded across the United States, finally merging with the Kraft Cheese Company in 1928. Kraft writes “since 1872” on its cream cheese containers. A local obituary(Opens in a new tab) for Lawrence also notes he started manufacturing cream cheese in the fall of that year, but Marx thinks that’s wrong. According to Marx’s study, it’s when Lawrence started manufacturing cheese, not when he created cream cheese, which was closer to 1875-1877. When questioned about the birth date of cream cheese, Marx joked that Lawrence kept moving it back the older he got.
What Philadelphia Cream Cheese looked like in 1928
Cream cheese prices fall in the 1920s. About this period, Jews begin to encounter advertisements 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 where Marx first became entangled with cream cheese. When a distant cousin informed him that his distant ancestors, the Breakstone brothers, developed cream cheese, he dug into it, learned it wasn’t true, and is still studying the white spread years later.)
The famous bagel-cream cheese love affair started in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It will be some time before Lox completes the holy trinity. The trio gets associated with Judaism in the 1940s, mostly, with phrases like the “bagels and lox crowd” gaining steam.
“Until the 1920s, the bagel was rigid like a pretzel,” Marx remarked of the bread imported from Eastern Europe. “It’s not only hard, but it’s also thin. Consider a quarter-inch-thick circular pretzel ring with a hole wide enough to fit your wrist through…. On early bagels, you can’t schmear anything. First of all, you can’t split them, they’re hard as rocks, and we have to wait until the hole gets smaller.”
The bagel softens and the hole snaps back into a smaller form when wheat flour is used instead of rye flour, which is commonly accessible in Europe.
“It’s amazing to see how it became an iconic Jewish cuisine. 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.
In 1918, there were just two men shaping and packaging cream cheese.
Cream cheese’s popularity extends beyond bagels. 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.”
Nowadays, cream cheese may be found in Americanized versions of a variety of foreign foods, including sushi rolls and crab rangoon. Not to mention the pervasiveness of cream cheese icing. 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(Opens in a new tab), a virtual collection of carrot facts and history.
According to Tenaya Darlington, who runs the cheese blog Madame Fromage(Opens in a new tab) and is the restaurant cheese director at Tria, a wine, cheese, and beer bar in Philadelphia, cheese balls, often a mixture of cream cheese and sweet or savory ingredients, have also become a staple on American holiday dinner tables.
Is cream cheese an American thing?
Cream cheese is a fresh cheese produced from milk and cream that is soft and typically mild in flavor.
Cream cheese Country of origin United States of America Pasteurized Yes Texture Soft Aging time None
Why are Americans so obsessed with cheese?
Cheese Makes Any Food Tastier
There’s a reason why Americans have begun putting cheese on almost everything. Consider this: what is a burger, mac ‘n’ cheese, or pizza without cheese? Although these items are delicious on their own, it’s no secret that this dairy product changes and improves their taste.
Are bagels and cream cheese an American thing?
A bagel and cream cheese (also known as bagel with cream cheese) is a common food pairing in American cuisine, the cuisine of New York City, and American Jewish cuisine. In its most basic form, it is a sliced bagel smeared with cream cheese.
What state eats the most cream cheese?
Cream cheese is the second most popular cheese in the United States, with 6 states enjoying it.
Each State’s Favorite Cheese.
State Favorite Cheese New Hampshire Brie New Jersey Mozzarella New Mexico Cream Cheese New York Mozzarella