Mac and Cheese: A Go-To Meal in Difficult Times
By Jeffrey Miller
In January 2015, food sales at restaurants overtook those at grocery stores for the first time. Most thought this marked a permanent shift in the American meal.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that trend took a U-turn. Restaurant revenue cratered, while shoppers emptied grocery shelves stocking up on food to cook at home. And with sales of pantry items soaring, shoppers found themselves reaching for an old reliable.
The cheap, boxed meal has long been a poster child for processed food. While it's often dismissed as stuff for kids, a lot of grownups secretly savor it. As I tell my own students, we love to bad mouth processed foods – usually while our mouths are full of it. It's also played an important role in kitchen science, wars and women's liberation.
Solving the Age-Old Problem of Spoiled Cheese
People have eaten pasta and cheese together for hundreds of years. Clifford Wright, the doyen of Mediterranean food history, says the first written recipe for macaroni and cheese was created in the court of the king of Naples in the 13th century, while the first reference in an English language cookbook likely appeared in Elizabeth Raffald's 1769 book "The Experienced English Housekeeper."
An internet search for macaroni and cheese recipes will turn up over 5 million hits, but many still prefer to get theirs in a box – the kind with pasta that comes in shapes ranging from shells to Pokemon characters, accompanied by a packet of powdered cheese sauce.
Boxed macaroni and cheese was one outcome of the quest for ways to keep cheese longer. Some cheese gets better as it ages – a well-aged cheddar is one of life's delights – but once most cheeses hit their prime, they tend to quickly go bad. Before household refrigeration became common, many retailers wouldn't even stock cheese in the summer because it spoiled so quickly.
Processed cheese solved this age-old problem.
Credit for inventing processed cheese should go to a pair of Swiss food chemists named Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler who, in 1913, were looking for a way to improve the shelf life of Emmenthaler cheese using sodium citrate. When they heated up the treated cheese, they noticed it melted better as well. But Chicago cheese salesman James L. Kraft was awarded the first patent for processed cheese in 1916.
Kraft understood the spoilage problem and had tried various solutions to it. He tried putting it tin foil packages, sealing it in jars, even canning it. But none of these solutions caught on with the public.
He eventually realized that the same bacteria that made cheese age nicely was also the bacteria that ultimately caused it to go bad. So he took some cheddar cheese scraps, heated them to kill the bacteria, ground them up with some sodium phosphate as an emulsifier and voila – Kraft processed cheese was born.
These early processed cheeses were similar to the processed American cheese slices we see in the stores today, though wrapping slices individually didn't happen for another 40 years. Kraft's first big customer was the U.S. Army, which bought more than 6 million pounds of the stuff to feed soldiers in World War I. A number of variations appeared in the following years, including Velveeta and Cheez Whiz.
The product was a hit, but Kraft wanted to find more ways to sell processed cheese, and eventually came up with the idea to make a powdered base. The packet in the box of macaroni and cheese is essentially a cheese sauce that has been partially defatted and dehydrated. When you make it, you're adding back the fat and the liquid when you mix in the milk and butter.
In 1937, Kraft debuted its boxed macaroni and cheese, which it sold for 19 cents and contained four servings. Its slogan was "make a meal for four in nine minutes," and the product got a big lift with American consumers during World War II because you could get two boxes and spend only one ration point. With meat hard to come by, the cheap main dish substitute was a hit.
When Natural Was Nasty
But when Kraft's different forms of processed cheese came out, they found widespread acceptance despite their strange textures. The fact that it wasn't natural didn't seem to bother consumers at all. In fact, as international food historian Rachel Laudan has noted, back then, "natural was something quite nasty." She describes fresh milk as warm and "unmistakably a bodily secretion." Throughout the history of cookery, most recipes aimed to transform an unappetizing raw product into something delightful and delectable.
So for most consumers, processed foods were a godsend. They kept well, tended to be easily digestible and, most importantly, they tasted good. Many of them could be easily prepared, freeing women from spending entire days cooking and giving them more time to pursue professions and avocations.
In some ways, processed foods were also healthier. They could be fortified with vitamins and minerals, and, in an era before everyone had access to mechanical refrigeration, the fact that they kept well meant consumers were less likely to contract diseases from spoiled, rotten foods. Pasteurization of dairy products virtually eliminated diseases like undulant fever, while foods processed and canned in large factories were less likely to harbor food-borne illnesses that could crop up due to faulty or improperly sanitized equipment used by home canners.
Given today's marketing emphasis on the fresh, local and natural, one might think that processed foods are going the way of the dinosaur. But this isn't the case. Almost all the processed foods invented in the 20th century are still being produced in one form or another. While you may not see much Tang on American shelves, it's hugely popular in the Middle East and Central and South America.
And mac and cheese – with roughly 7 million boxes of Kraft's version sold each week – continues to be devoured in good times and bad. Whether it recalls happier, simpler times or feeds a family on a shoestring budget, the Day-Glo orange dinner is here to stay.
Jeffrey Miller is an Associate Professor, Hospitality Management at Colorado State University.
Disclosure statement: Jeffrey Miller does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
A tornado tore through a city north of Birmingham, Alabama, Monday night, killing one person and injuring at least 30.
- Tornadoes and Climate Change: What Does the Science Say ... ›
- Tornadoes Hit Unusually Wide Swaths of U.S., Alarming Climate ... ›
- 23 Dead as Tornado Pummels Lee County, AL in Further Sign ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By David Konisky
On his first day in office President Joe Biden started signing executive orders to reverse Trump administration policies. One sweeping directive calls for stronger action to protect public health and the environment and hold polluters accountable, including those who "disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities."
Michael S. Regan, President Biden's nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, grew up near a coal-burning power plant in North Carolina and has pledged to "enact an environmental justice framework that empowers people in all communities." NCDEQ
- Report Urges Biden to Reverse Trump's Environmental Rollbacks ›
- US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- Biden Faces Pressure to Tackle 'Unfunded' Toxic Waste Sites ... ›
By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
By Jewel Fraser
Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.