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.

Vienna Sausages

Can of Vienna Sausage in from of a mountain range flanked by two Austrian buildings. This is another indestructible food.

The littlest link…

It’s hard to find a food more ubiquitous than sausage. Every country has their versions, because sausage was developed to do something important: save food from being wasted. Got a pile of tiny trimmings left over from slaughter time? Got a length of spare intestine? You’re in business. Sausages all around! They can be smoked or cured, steamed or grilled, but they always turn a pile of scraps into a meal.

Sausages should have been a low-class food. They are, after all, made from leftovers. Richer folks could afford to eat big pieces of meat like hams and pheasants and roast beef, but they wanted sausage. It’s not hard to understand why. The balance of fat, protein, and salt in a sausage made it a perfect comfort meal. Soon, butchers and delis and families and whole countries were working to make fancier sausages. They experimented with novel spices and processing methods. A pile of scraps no longer, sausages became a source of pride. 

Not to be outdone, the United States threw its hat in the ring with a product called Vienna Sausage. Bursting upon the sausage scene in 1903, these short lengths of forcemeat were smoked and canned in aspic or chicken broth. They had almost nothing in common with European vienna sausages which were long, thin hotdog-like creatures. American Vienna Sausages were their own thing, man. Made of beef, pork, and chicken (the turducken of sausage?!) they became a phenomenon. 

Advertising did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to promoting these little links. A 1904 Libby’s print ad shares that “Vienna Sausages are served extensively at home and abroad, on transatlantic ships and in dining cars.” In 1954, the ads had shifted tone considerably, now claiming the little sausages to be “a real wife-saver.” By 1990, the ads were talking about ingredients, informing the public that the links were ALL meat. NO filler. So, whether you were a traveler, an overwhelmed housewife or just completely obsessed with meat, Vienna Sausages were for you. Luckily, recipes were everywhere, encouraging creativity and innovation with these canned wieners. Pigs in a blanket! Tiny Corndogs! Wieners with Sauerkraut! Hors d’oeuvres! The possibilities seemed truly endless.

But if canned Vienna Sausages were a uniquely American invention, they certainly did not stay here. We talked about this a bit in relation to Spam, but it is worth repeating here. Vienna Sausages spread as many indestructible foods did: with conquest, colonialism, and war. Elaine Castillo frames this beautifully in her article, Colonialism in a Can. What often started as survival food for interlopers in unfamiliar settings, was enriched and elevated by locals who made it part of their cuisine. 

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Vienna Sausages are part of the rich tapestry of preserved meats. They might not have the panache of prosciutto, but they have kept folks filled and earned some fans along the way. Not too shabby for a tiny canned sausage. 

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. 

Spam

A can of Span sits surrounded by flowers and decorative elements.

In which Spam becomes a global phenomenon.

Spam was invented in 1937 as a way to use pork shoulder, a cut of meat no one wanted at the time. It had some popularity in the US, but it spread widely during WWII. Getting fresh meat to soldiers was near impossible, but Spam was shelf-stable and lasted forever. Problem solved! And as soldiers were eating their Spam (Hormel kept a file of military complaints about it) so were an awful lot of civilians. WWII brought Spam to the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Japan, Great Britain… and the list goes on.

In the coming years, Spam would continue its march around the planet (aided by American colonialism and various wars). And an interesting divergence occurred. In some places, Spam was a temporary food staple. It surfaced in response to an urgent need, and receded when the need was gone. But in other places, Spam was more tenacious. People experimented with it and came up with smart ways to use it. They made the product an ingredient. Spam wove itself into these cuisines.

You may ask “What caused the difference in Spam uptake? Why is Spam popular in some places and ridiculed in others?” Good questions. And complicated ones. One answer I’ve seen is rooted in economic circumstance. In places where economic hardship was widespread for a short time, Spam was tolerated. It was a food of necessity, and folks tended to want to (and be able to) distance themselves from it as soon as possible. In places where economic recovery came slower, cooks found ways to use the ingredient to its best advantage. It was around long enough not to be associated with any particular economic trauma. It was food. And if you prepared it well, it was remarkably good.

Each country has its own story when it comes to Spam. You’ll see stories about hardship. And war. And colonialism. And family meals. And silly merchandise. And comfort foods. This post is not long enough, nor am I knowledgable enough to cover all of the complexities of Spam. There is a whole lot to learn. 

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.