From the Homestead Kitchen: Cheese—The Ideal Food

by Alexandra Rasic

Like many food manufacturers in the 1920s, the Kraft-Phenix Cheese Company (yes, that Kraft!) had a Home Economics Department whose role was to help market their products through demonstrations, cookbooks, radio shows, and more. Today many large companies do the same, but instead of calling them Home Economics Departments, they simply call them Test Kitchens, highlighting a place familiar to us all: our kitchens. The greatest asset that the Phenix Cheese Company brought to Kraft when they were acquired in 1928 was Philadelphia Cream Cheese, a product that many feel has yet to be rivaled and is beloved around the world. Kraft’s product line grew exponentially starting the the 1920s with many products that are still well known to us today.

Images from Kraft’s Home Economics Department, 1928.

But they can’t all be winners, right? The featured item in this week’s post is a booklet called Cheese-and ways to serve it, published by Kraft-Phenix in 1928 with the goal of introducing consumers to their latest product: Nukraft. “Cheese has been known as a healthful, invigorating food because it contains so many precious elements of whole milk,” they explained. “Some time ago our laboratories set out to find some method to obtain more of these desirable food properties from the milk and add them to the cheese. The success of that research is Nukraft—a product that looks like cheese, tastes like cheese, but which because of its additional food value, many think should be termed a super-cheese.” Whoa!

While this is a great story, the reality appears to be that Kraft-Phenix was looking for a product to rival Pabst-ette, a similar cheese food manufactured by the Pabst Brewing Company (yes, that Pabst!) during Prohibition. Looking to stay afloat while alcohol production was prohibited, brewers like Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Yuengling turned to producing things like cheese, alcohol-free drinks, and ice cream. While Kraft-Phenix marketed Nukraft heavily, as seen in this booklet and examples of extensive newspaper advertising, it was a flop. The product that Kraft-Phenix rolled out next, however, turned out to be the real “super-cheese,” equally heralded and reviled today: Velveeta. 

A Safeway ad from the Los Angeles Times, September 20, 1927, promoting the wholesomeness of Pabst-ett for children.
Kraft-Phenix doubles down on advertising efforts for two of its emerging “super-cheeses” in the Los Angeles Evening Express, May 24, 1929. Cheese advertisers routinely promoted the vitamins and minerals found in cheese as ideal for the diets of young and old alike.

Invented by Emil Frey of New York’s Monroe Cheese Company in 1918, Kraft-Phenix acquired Velveeta in 1927. If you’ve ever tasted it, you’ll understand that it was named to highlight its “velvety smooth” texture and melting ability that exists as a result of reincorporating the whey with the curd. It was a scientifically engineered cheese food, and the company advertised its ease of use and versatility in numerous ways.

Flipping through the pages of the booklet, this cheese-lover decided to make two recipes featured next to one another: Macaroni Cheese Timbales (mac and cheese set in small molds) and Salmon Loaf. In both cases, the suggested cheese was Kraft American Cheese or Nukraft. Since Nukraft no longer exists, I used Kraft American Cheese in both recipes. I could not find it in a brick to grate, so I bought deluxe singles, which are not individually wrapped (thank goodness!), and minced them as best I could.

For the Macaroni Cheese Timbales, I ended up putting all of the cheese and liquid in a bowl and taking a hand blender to the ingredients to get the cheese well incorporated into the liquid. The finished product set beautifully, but the flavor was very mild. I’d make this recipe again…but I’d use stronger cheese (sorry Kraft!) and spices like cumin, cayenne, paprika, and more pepper.

I was prepared to hate the Salmon Loaf, but it was surprisingly good. I used canned salmon. My husband and I both thought it tasted like an hors d’oeuvre you’d have passed around at a party with a a dollop of sauce, or wrapped in a piece of puff pastry. I was very weary of making a dish that combined salmon and cheese. Even when I make a tuna sandwich I never add cheese, but I looked around recipe forums and found that salmon loaf made with cheese (usually cheddar) is most definitely “a thing.” Many recipes call for dill, which sounded like a better match to the loaf than the suggested parsley, and it was definitely a magical addition.

Many of the recipes in the booklet did not include cooking time or temperatures, but there was a note from the Home Economics staff at the end of the publication that said cheese should not be cooked at a temperature over 350 degrees as anything higher could render the cheese tough and hard to digest!

Curious about some of the other recipes in the booklet? Here is the index.

In closing I will say again that I love cheese. I always have. And now I think I’ll be more open to trying it in combination with ingredients I may not have thought to be a good fit before…but I’m not ready to try it with pineapple and French dressing…at least not yet.

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