The secret WWII history of cheese

Matt Saintsing
June 04, 2018 - 1:47 pm

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There are few foods more sought after, and frankly addictive, than cheese. Whether you enjoy some crumbled, spread or sliced with a glass of wine, or layered atop tomato sauce and dough, cheese has certainly become an American staple.

As a proud son of Southern Wisconsin, I take this special dairy product extremely seriously. And since June 4 is National Cheese Day, it’s the perfect opportunity to pay homage to the deliciously fattening treat and its impact on the American military during World War II.

Rationing

Food shortages were a significant problem during World War I. Climbing prices, food hoarding and mob-like runs on grocery stores caused some concern. By the time World War II rolled around, the British instituted a points system to get their citizens to voluntarily reduce consumption of key foods that feed a fighting force: meat and cheese.

Photo Courtesy of National Archives

Cheese wasn’t always the American staple food we recognize and love today. In fact, at the tail end of World War I, when protein-packed meat was rationed and rare, recipes kept popping up encouraging citizens to use cheese as a protein replacement.

By the next World War, Americans were hooked on cheese.

So, on March, 29 1943, the United States mandated that it be rationed. First it began with hard cheeses that were more easily shipped overseas to feed the American fighting force. But after just a few short months, cream and even some cottage cheeses were added to the list.

To keep track of rations, ration books were distributed to the nation. Each person received 64 red stamps, which equaled 28 ounces of meat and just four ounces of cheese per week.

Life improved shortly after the war, and in November of 1945, rationing came to an end.

Kraft American Cheese

The Swiss have Gouda, and the British claim Cheddar, but American cheese was born out of the struggles of World War II.

National Dairy Products Corporation, Kraft’s parent company, sold more than one hundred million pounds to the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps, in 1944 alone, not including the half a million pounds of cheese spread included in K and C rations.

U.S. Army photo by Gertrud Zach

The war was a boon to the burgeoning company that patented “processed cheese,” but by the summer of 1945, the war ended in Japan leaving the military with dozens of warehouses full of dried cheese as well as a manufacturing and distribution system.

And when the troops came back home, they had developed a palate for the mild, somewhat salty “taste” of processed cheese, and looked for it at their local grocery stores. Most of Americans at the time didn’t have access to cold food storage, but Kraft’s American cheese didn’t need refrigeration.

Natural cheese was actually less expensive, but it didn’t keep, so even though processed cheese cost more, it was the better option for families who had yet to own a fridge.

Cheetos

The finger-staining, cheese-dusted snack favorite has roots in the U.S. military when a dehydrated, compressed “cheese” was invented by scientists in 1943.

Dreamstime

The military was at the forefront of food science during World War II, and one product that came out of it is cheese powder. Once the war ended, the American military was left with a litany of dried foods, which were subsequently sold to the Frito-Lay Corporation.

In 1961, the company debuted the nation’s first cheesy snack, packed with the same Wisconsin cheddar the U.S. Army used for its dehydrated products. The longer shelf life and lighter weight of cheese in powdered form made an instant hit in the snack food industry.

Before that invention, American troops and civilians were stuck eating plain corn chips, and we’ve never looked back.