Kraft Mac & Cheese

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Mac &Cheese

“A meal that can be ready before things get any worse.”

Everybody has a killer mac & cheese recipe that they want to brag about. I get it. I really do. Y’all are grating 100 cheeses, and blending silky-smooth roux, and sprinkling everything lavishly with breadcrumbs. Your mac & cheese is second to none. You are the comfort food champion… 

Now that we’ve established your superiority in all things cheesy, let’s be real. Some days you work 14 hours. Some days there’s a sinkful of dirty dishes. Some days the kids are about to mutiny. This reality demands a different kind of comfort food: the kind that comes in a cardboard box and only needs a little butter and a splash of milk–a meal that can be ready before things get any worse. There are a million brands of boxed mac & cheese, but it was Kraft that invented the category, so let’s talk about how they took a labor-intensive culinary classic and transformed it into a meal for tough times.

The story of boxed mac & cheese really begins with the cheese. Or maybe we should say “cheese,” because the cheese in a box of mac & cheese is not quite the same as the cheese in your fridge. Cheese itself is an innovation. It takes highly perishable milk and turns it into something that can be consumed at a later date. But as most of us know, cheese still goes bad, and not always in the blue-cheese-is-delicious kind of way. In 1911, two Swiss cheese fellows named Fritz Stettler and Walter Gerber were working on just this problem. They found that by heating shredded cheese and adding sodium citrate, they were left with a smooth cheese product that did not spoil. The first processed cheese had arrived. Huzzah!

Meanwhile, in the USA, James L. Kraft was making a solid living as a cheese distributor. In 1914, he opened his own cheese factory. By 1916, he had secured the first patent for a method of making processed cheese. Not only would this new cheese-food stay fresh, it was also incredibly cheap to make, since it used scraps of fresh cheese that would otherwise be trash. It was a big couple of years for Mr. Kraft, but he was just getting started. In 1917, the United Stated joined the first World War. The troops needed to eat, and the United States Army treated them to 6 million pounds of Kraft’s processed cheese. (Soldiers were supposed to eat 4000 calories a day, so they obviously needed plenty of cheese.)

Never one to rest on his war-time laurels, Kraft continued his experimentation, eventually developing a powdered cheese product. By 1937, the company launched its shelf-stable macaroni & cheese. In one box, you got plenty of macaroni noodles, a pouch of powdered cheese-food, and instructions for making the fastest mac & cheese ever. It was a major achievement that came at the perfect time. The Great Depression was still weighing on the country, folks didn’t have much money, and a meal that could feed a family for 19 cents was pretty irresistible. 

In a few short years, WWII began, and with it came new challenges. First, meat and dairy were rationed. That meant that you probably weren’t gonna have what you wanted for dinner. And by the way…who was going to cook that dinner? Many women homemakers had joined the war effort and were working long hours. That meant that quick and easy meals (without meat and dairy) were essential. You could get 2 boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese for one ration stamp, and it took just 10 minutes to prepare. Life just kept throwing us problems and Kraft Mac & Cheese just kept solving them.

You can follow the story of this handy mac & cheese up through the present day just by looking at the taglines of their ads. They tell of financial hardship (“Eat well in spite of it all.”), a crunch on time (“You are a cool 10 minutes away from a hot meal.”), and picky children (“You know they’re going to like it.”) These issues resurface again and again, meaning that there is always a good reason to buy a box of mac & cheese. 

It turns out that if you develop a food that lasts forever, is super cheap, and tastes pretty good, you can earn a spot in the hearts and shopping carts of pretty much everybody…even if they CAN make a much better version from scratch.

Taco Dinner Kit

Black and. white illustration of  and indestructible food: Taco Dinner Kit

“From silver mine to supermarket.”

Picture it. You arrive home after a hard day at school expecting something boring for dinner. Maybe it’ll be a casserole, or meatloaf, or spaghetti and meat sauce. But no…not today. Some cool adult in your house has procured a Taco Dinner Kit, and your family’s ground meat is about to get rad. Just grab a crunchy yellow shell and start building the dinner of your dreams…

The taco kit enriched many a childhood, but we can’t talk about the kit until we talk about the taco. So let’s tacobout it. (I hate this joke. I just couldn’t avoid it.) Anyway, wrapping something delicious in a tortilla is an ancient idea, but calling it a “taco” probably originated in Mexico’s silver mines. “Taco” was the name given to a small explosive charge made of gunpowder wrapped in paper. In the slang-filled world of mining, workers’ lunches (the aforementioned “something delicious wrapped in a tortilla”) became known as tacos. Voila!

Tacos were a great food for workers because they were so portable, and in the 1880s, Mexican workers were on the move. Jobs were opening up in the United States in agriculture, construction, and on the railroad. As workers came from Mexico to fill those jobs, their tacos came with them. Street carts selling Mexican food popped up in cities like LA and San Antonio, and they were drawing crowds. Then, in 1910, the very first taco recipe appeared in an American cookbook. Enterprising cooks could now make tacos at home.

It was a great time to be cooking Mexican food in the US, because the ingredients you needed were suddenly much easier to find. In 1896, a Texan named William Gebhardt bought a bunch of dried chiles and ran them through a meat grinder, thus inventing Chili Powder. Around that same time, canneries in El Paso started churning out tomatoes, green chiles, and pinto beans. A few decades later, canned enchilada sauce and even canned tortillas arrived on the scene. By the 1930s, the very first taco kits began to appear. Americans rejoiced.

The next era in the history of American tacos comes on the heels of Taco Bell. The founder, Glen Bell, was running a hot dog stand in San Bernardino when he noticed that his neighbor’s business had much longer lines than he did. That neighbor was the Mitla Cafe, and they were serving fried tacos. He started eating there every day and trying to reverse engineer their recipe. In the end, they took pity on him and showed him how to make them. He, predictably, turned around and opened his own taco restaurant in 1951. There was some tweaking and experimenting, and then he opened the first Taco Bell in 1962. By 1967, there were 100 of them. Tacos were now on the menu for everyone. (Side note: That original restaurant he learned fried tacos from? It’s still there! Still run by the same family! That makes me happy.)

A lot of Bell’s success stemmed from the fact that he was pre-making hard taco shells. Corn tortillas are delicious, IF you eat them fresh. They are much less delicious if they’ve been sitting around. However, the crunchy fried corn tortilla shell is very shelf-stable. It was easy to warm and fill. It was fun–if messy to eat. And it paved the way for the modern taco kit, one which did not include canned tortillas.

Those stylish new taco kits were in grocery stores around the country by the 70s. In addition to crunchy taco shells, kits included a packet of spices (heavy on the chili powder) and a pouch of sauce. You could add your own protein, veggies and–shoot, this is sort of where our story began…the taco party of your childhood dreams.

A taco dinner kit is about as far from authentic Mexican food as you can get, but it gets folks cooking and eating together, which is awesome. It also does what all indestructible foods do: grants access to folks who wouldn’t otherwise have it, one crunchy yellow shell at a time.

Manischewitz Matzo

A box of Manischewitz Matzo. This is a kosher Indestructible Food.

“A truly modern matzo.”

Matzo is an unleavened bread with a long Jewish history. In the thirteenth century BCE, as Israelites fled slavery in Egypt, they left in such a hurry that they couldn’t wait for their bread dough to rise. When the dough was baked, it was a simple flatbread: matzo. During the Passover holiday each year, matzo is an important symbol of freedom and a reminder to be humble. With just two ingredients, flour and water, it’s just about as humble as you can get. 

Up until the mid 1800’s, matzo was made by local bakeries or synagogues adhering to rigid rules of production. The entire process could not take longer than 18 minutes. There was a strict division of labor, with apprentices measuring flour, women kneading the dough, and men baking it. Any dough that did not make it into the oven within the dedicated timeframe would be discarded. The whole process was supervised by rabbis, and if word got out that any shortcuts had been taken, the community would shun the bakery. (Which, quite frankly, is what you get if you don’t follow the damn rules.) Matzo baking was a very regimented operation long before it made the leap to mass production.

So, when did matzo go industrial? In 1838, a machine was invented to roll out matzo dough. That was the first step towards a mechanized process that would turn out a more uniform product. Everyone could have the same matzo! The machine elicited the first debates about if matzo was really matzo if it wasn’t made by hand. There was also an interesting ethical question: whether the downside of depriving low-paid women of their kneading jobs was offset by producing a product that was cheap enough for everyone to afford. It was a matter of spirited discussion, and would continue to be for decades. 

In 1888, a man named Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz opened a matzo factory in Cincinnati, Ohio. From the start, he was determined to subdue any doubts about mass-produced matzo. As a shohet ubodek (a butcher and inspector with many years of study under his belt) he was an accomplished and respected professional, well-versed in Jewish dietary law. He would not allow his facility to cut any corners. His machinery turned out a consistent, quality product in a factory filled with fresh air and sunlight. 

A clean factory that followed all the rules was great, but Manischewitz knew that he needed street cred. If he did not have influential rabbis on his side, he would miss out on a lot of sales. He began conducting tours of his factory for visiting rabbis and community leaders. He sent his sons to study in Jerusalem. After his passing, those sons established a religious school, ensuring that generations of rabbis would be associated with the Manischewitz name. 

In advertising, we talk a lot about finding your target market. The Jewish community was not and is not a monolith, and different folks had different concerns about modern matzo. Manischewitz ad campaigns used a two-pronged approach: In English publications, where less traditional and younger Jewish readers were likely to see the message, the ads focused on hygiene and cleanliness in the factories. They emphasized that the product was very pure and wholesome. In Yiddish or Hebrew papers, the ads spoke about dietary law, and the importance of history and tradition, hoping to sway more conservative Jews into thinking that this new matzo was progress and not a deterioration of standards. 

As you may notice if you ever hang out in the grocery store, all of these efforts paid off. Manischewitz is a leading brand in Kosher food. For generations, families have relied on them for their holiday matzo needs. Today, there are a whole bunch of new products to choose from: People are buying matzo as a snack for kids, using matzo meal cake mixes, and cooking with matzo all year long. (A friend told me to look into matzo brei and suddenly I know what I’m eating every day from now on.) Matzos’ simple ingredients of flour and water even lend themselves to a lot of modern, sparkly product claims : Low carb! Fat Free! Vegan! There is nothing a matzo can’t do!

I keep learning that very basic foods often have the most interesting stories. If you want even more info about the Manischewitz company and modern matzo, you can check out this lecture by Jonathan B. Sarna for Touro College. As for me, I’ve got to go pick up a box of matzo.

Jello

Indestructible food: A box of Jello stands on a cake tray above two fancy jello molds.

From royal banquets to hospital rooms…

People have been eating gelatin for ages. Foods suspended in gel were hallmarks of elite dining as far back as the 15th century. One of the reasons these dishes inspired such awe was that if they were on your table, it probably meant that you had a kitchen staff. Not just a someone-cooks-my-meals kitchen staff, but a I-have-enough-folks-working-for-me-that-I-can-spare-someone-for-hours-and-hours-to-boil-carcasses sort of kitchen staff. Gelatin jells due to collagen obtained from skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals. And obtaining that collagen took some serious time.

Over the centuries, gelatin dishes remained popular with wealthy folks. In 1845, a carpenter named Pearle in Leroy, NY was using some time-saving powdered gelatin to mix up cough medicine (as a carpenter generally does) and stumbled upon something closer to a dessert. His wife, May, was like, “That’s a dessert! Let’s call it Jell-O!” -because adding an -O to the end of words was really popular at the time, and May was brilliant. Anyway, Pearle didn’t have the money or experience to successfully market this new dessert, so he sold it. It changed hands a couple times because it wasn’t immediately popular.

“But why?” you may ask. “If people loved gelatin desserts, why weren’t they enraptured with an easy-to-make, beautiful, fruity invention such as Jell-O?” Because new stuff is easier to love if you know why you’re gonna love it. Jell-O’s new owners had a plan. They sent an army of salespeople out into the world to hand out samples. They brought Jell-O desserts to church picnics and town gatherings. They took out ads claiming that it was “America’s Favorite Dessert.” (It wasn’t.) And they thought of something new. They printed and distributed cookbooks filled with Jell-O-centric recipes. People could actually see all of the possibilities for the product in their everyday lives. It suddenly seemed incredible that they had been without this miracle food for so long!

Jell-O gained popularity throughout the early 1900s, allowing women to create “dainty” dishes cheaply and quickly. It also gave them a way to hide leftovers in something a little more refined than a goulash or a hash. That old tuna fish took on a new life when viewed through the lens of lemon Jell-O. This economy and the ability to stretch a food supply came in pretty handy during the Great Depression. When World War II hit and brought its attendant food rationing, Jell-O let families have something sweet without using up the precious household sugar supply. During hard times, the jelly really earned its place in the American kitchen.

The convenience and utility was super, but there was a problem. In the 1950’s, women were valued as homemakers. And making a home just kept getting easier. Appliances made chores quicker. Processed foods cut down on prep time and the skill required to make something tasty. Some women started avoiding (or feeling guilty) about buying convenience foods. Luckily, the big food brands had a solution: View our products as a shortcut, but always add your own spin! Only you can create something unique and beautiful! Your family and friends will be stunned! 

And so a classic era of foods that should never have been suspended in Jell-o was born. Hard boiled eggs, olives, ham, celery, shrimp, PIECES OF HOT DOG?!… Nothing escaped the enterprising homemakers. A select few were rewarded for their gelatin-powered prowess when their recipes were published on packages and in cookbooks. In the 60s, Jell-O even released a line of savory gelatins for use with meats and vegetables (it didn’t last very long).

By the 1970s, Jell-O sales were falling. Folks were no longer all that enamored with jellied salads. They were eating plain vegetables again. While the company tried to reinvigorate the brand (Jell-O pudding pops! Bill Cosby! Jell-O Jigglers!), it was never really the same. 

But if it isn’t the sweeping success story it once was, Jell-O certainly hasn’t vanished from the national plate. In hospitals, prisons, and school cafeterias it is standard fare. It’s Utah’s state snack. Jell-O shots are a rite of passage for countless teens and young adults. Today, surveys suggest that 1 in 4 Americans still has a box of Jell-O in their pantry, which means that the next round of gelatinous culinary innovation could be just around the corner. 

Shake n’ Bake

A box of Shake 'n Bake breadcrumbs sit in a tableau surrounded by tomatoes, onions and herbs.

When breadcrumbs took over the world...

Breadcrumbs are a way of using up old bread that would otherwise be a punishment to eat. And as old bread is a worldwide concern, most every culture has breadcrumbs. Crackers, Tortillas, Pumpernickel, Rusk, French bread, Pita… Any bread-like thing can become a breadcrumb. They can be used to thicken soups or top deserts or bake onto casseroles. OR they can be used to coat foods before frying.

Enter Shake ’n Bake. If there is a better example of a product existing purely because of marketing, I wanna know what it is. The folks at General Foods started selling Shake ’n Bake in 1965. And you know what it was? A box of bread crumbs. People already HAD bread crumbs. They used them all the time! But THESE breadcrumbs were different. Because you put them in a plastic bag and shook it real hard to coat your meat. There was no startling new technology. It was breadcrumbs in a bag. A little bit of built-in seasoning. But it was a phenomenon. And frying?! Why fry things when you could bake them and they would still be breaded? We don’t want food. We want breading!

Anyway, chefs talk all the time about elevating simple ingredients. And although this isn’t quite that they mean, Shake ’n Bake did it admirably. (I had to look up if they still make this. They do. And now you can get Pretzel Flavored?! You’re welcome.)

Jiffy Pop

A pan of Jiffy Pop sits next to a campfire in a decorative frame. Popcorn swirls around it.

Popcorn becomes a fad…

Remember Jiffy Pop? I hadn’t thought of it in years, but a reader suggested looking into it so here we are…

Jiffy Pop was invented in 1958, but I really can’t figure out why. I’ve searched all over the internet, but no one provides a reason to invent an expanding disposable popcorn pan for popping popcorn on the stove. You could ALREADY pop popcorn on the stove. In a regular pan! Jiffy Pop just made it take slightly longer. I’m looking for help here, friends. If you have thoughts, shoot ‘em over. (Was it because the nation was enamored with space travel and shiny aluminum, maybe?)

I know some of you might say, “Dudek! It’s for camping!” And I agree that popping Jiffy Pop over a fire is not to be missed. But the original ads showed a mom making it on a stove. No campfire in sight. I’ve also heard a few suggestions that it is “safer,” but is it? Really?

Why ever it was invented, it was a huge hit. People oohed and ahhed and happily shook that pan for 1000 minutes to see the Jiffy Pop pan expand and accommodate those exploding corn kernels. And then all those families enjoyed popcorn that was a little less good that the kind you pop in oil on the stove. (My bias is showing.)

Microwave popcorn was really a nail in the coffin for the popularity of Jiffy Pop. In 1983, Orville Redenbacher introduced his version. It was fast and easy and safe, and clearly the popcorn of the future. But microwave popcorn is its own story, and one we will get to soon enough.

(A note after the fact… Now that I think about it, Jiffy Pop is a little like space ice cream: A product designed to treat you to an interesting, yet slightly disappointing experience. Sorry, kids.)

Stove Top Stuffing

How the side dish became the star…

People have been stuffing things since the beginning of time. Or, like, early, anyway. Because stuffing something (vegetables, meats) helps it to retain moisture. It also helps the dish to go a little further. Stuffing was so popular it became a side dish in its own right. Even if there was nothing to stuff. But that is the story of real stuffing. Stove Top Stuffing is a science project from start to finish. And an awfully successful one.

In 1970 or thereabouts, the marketing department at General Foods said, “We need an instant stuffing product.” Domestic Scientist Ruth Siems rose to the challenge. And it WAS a challenge. The secret behind Stovetop is the particular size of the bread cubes and the time it sits and absorbs the added water. But Ruth figured it out. And the product was an “instant” success. I know! I’m the worst!

Remember how it was the marketing department who wanted this novel product in the first place? Well, it wasn’t to go with turkey. It was really engineered to replace potatoes in a weekday chicken dinner. (What focus group requested that? Tater haters!) Early ads showed families rejecting mashed potatoes in favor of Stovetop. But for me, Stovetop ads reached their peak when they showed two kids inviting each other over for dinner so that they could eat Stovetop TWICE IN ONE DAY. I never did that even once, but I dreamt of it.

Folks still buy 61 million boxes of Stovetop every year for Thanksgiving. There are a bunch of flavors to choose from. And yes, I watched Dave Chapelle tell his Stovetop joke before writing this article.

Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix

The great cornbread debate…

Cornbread is, and has been important in America since the beginning. Native Americans were using corn in a million ways when colonists came here, and the inception of a European-style bread came quickly thereafter. Corn was plentiful, cheaper than wheat, and a good way to fill up bellies. Corn!

As time went on, regional differences emerged. There were people who said that cornbread was a little bit sweet, and people who said that cornbread was not sweet at all. I always heard that this was a Northern/Southern thing. But it is way more complex than that.

With the advent of industrial milling, sweeter white corn was passed over in favor of cheaper, less tasty yellow corn. So families that couldn’t afford the more expensive, but naturally sweet white cornmeal, tended to add sweetener to their cornbread recipes. This brings us to Jiffy mix. Which was invented in the 1930s to help poor families put delicious baked goods on the table. The brand was made to be cheap. And easy. That was the whole point. And, you guessed it, the mix had an awful lot of sugar in it.

This is the part where I say that nothing about food and class is simple. That we absorb our tastes from our families. And that means that your comfort foods lag behind your financial position by at least a generation.

PS: If you want to read an interesting piece about the cornbread divide and race, Kathleen Purvis wrote a great one for the Charlotte Observer a few years back. A lot of these facts were learned from her.

PPS: If you want to get a 12-pack of Jiffy baking mixes for $6!!! go to jiffymix.com (Not a paid endorsement, because I’m not really anybody. I just like Jiffy.)

Quaker Oats

A canister of oats sits under a shining sun, flanked by oat stalks. The smiling quaker fellow denotes quality.

Some thoughts on oats…

If you say, “Oats are a boring thing to draw!” you should read on…

The man in quaker garb was chosen to denote quality. This was especially important at a time (late 1800’s) when there was no federal regulation on food purity. With adulteration de rigueur, few products were what they claimed to be. Quaker Oats were, like, oats. And they still are. Oats.

For a time, Quaker Oates used the slogan: “It’s the right thing to do.” Which seems more like a commandment than a breakfast option. Also, Quaker hired Wilford Brimley. The ultimate oat-pusher. A million memes were born.

The empty canister is, and always has been, for storing treasures. 

Instant Mashed Potatoes

A towering box of Idaho Spuds sits in a snowy landscape. A child on a sled glides by.

A longer-lasting potato…

Potatoes are a celebration food, and they became popular, in part, because they take so long to go bad. But during WWII, the government was greedy, and they decided to push for an even longer shelf life by dehydrating potatoes into granules. Which were then made into extraordinarily gummy and awful mashed potatoes for the soldiers. Like many wartime innovations, there was in interest in making these reconstituted mashed potatoes into a consumer product. They just had to be a little less terrible.

A major turning point was the realization that “flakes” beat “granules” as far as mashed potato texture went. A government facility in Wyndmore, PA developed a process called “The Philadelphia Cook” This involved precooking potatoes, cooling them, cooking them again, and then drying them. Into flakes. Obviously. These new instant mashed potatoes were less terrible than before and saved the hassle of peeling potatoes forever and boiling a towering cauldron of water. A big win!

I hope you are celebrating this season with special foods. And if Christmas is your kind of holiday, I hope it’s a jolly one.