New Year’s Day, Simon Templar started a post “Blackeye Peas And Comfort Food”. There were 288 comments. Someone mentioned government cheese and I shoot my mouth off about someday doing a post about my experience making government cheese. As you may have realized my pen name is PHCheese which is a play on PhD. I acquired this moniker at a party on Bald Head Island, NC (alcohol was involved) where everyone except myself and my best friend were either MDs or PhDs or, in case of one fellow, both. My best friend was an owner of several car dealerships and probably had more money than everyone else combined. One of the more modest doctors (if there is such a thing) asked my friend a question on the economy. His answer was something like he just moves iron (cars) and he would demure to me because I had a PHCheese.
So I do not have a PHCheese. I have a BA in Political Science, Economics, and History. However, I did own a cheese business which, in part, made government cheese. This in no way makes me a cheese expert. I needed to understand and execute every phase of my company so please don’t hold me to the technical questions of cheese, farming, and cows etc. I hired people for the tough stuff.
First, a little history of government cheese and, with it, a little background on cows and farming. Cows give milk after giving birth. Their off spring are taken and the cow will continue to give milk for about a year. They are usually re-bred early in that time. In the old days (up until about 1940) this was done with the seasons, which meant that there was a glut of milk in late May and June that would drive prices down. As with all government programs, there were good intentions involved. The Commodity Credit Corporation was hatched to smooth-out supply and demand during the New Deal. It actually worked for a time: the CCC would buy the surplus and then sell it to the trade during short supply times. But after changes in animal husbandry and farming techniques, the milk supply became more constant and — with the growth of farmer co-ops — the government became the costumer-of-first-resort (instead of the last resort) for cheese. Mountains of surplus cheddar made in 40-lb. blocks were stored in warehouses and limestone mines all over the country, especially in Kansas City.
All of this cheese was inspected by the USDA prior to being purchased by the CCC; it was an excellent product, especially after being aged, some of it for four or five years. The CCC try to use-up these surpluses through school lunch program but, by 1980, that no longer kept up with purchases.
This is the beginning of what I call the dog chasing its tail. The CCC began giving the cheese to states who, in turn, gave it to the general public who, in turn, lowered demand in normal markets, thus causing the CCC to buy more surpluses. It is also where I got involved. I was one of two USDA-approved packaging plants in Pennsylvania at the time. The other plant either was not interested or didn’t know that PA had a let a bid to package 5 million lbs of 40-lb. cheddar in to five-lb. packages. At the same time, I also won a bid let by the USDA to package one million lbs. of cheddar to be sent to Egypt. Needless to say this, was huge for me at the time. I only had three months to do it all.
I got it done and took the considerable profits and bought equipment to process those same cheddar into 5-lb. process American cheese. This cheese also played a big part in the tail-chasing drama. Pallets of American cheese were dropped in some crazy places. Forget the phrase “process”: this was excellent product as well. First, I’ll explain what American cheese is and then explain how and with equipment is used. American cheese is basically just cooked cheddar cheese. To enable it to form back into a solid about 2 or 3 % of emulsifiers (sodium phosphate) are added, along with some salt. That is it.
So, why and how do you take perfectly good cheddar and make American out of it? Cheddar can be described as being alive. It starts life as a rubbery tasteless curd. As it ages, it takes on different characteristics, textures, and — more importantly — flavors. But here is the rub, time doesn’t stop the process and everyone has a different opinion what tastes good to them. So, different stages and ages and textures of cheddar are blended together so as to develop a consistent American cheese. The cooking stops the phases forever and also creates an indefinite self life as long as the packaging stays in intact. It actually does not really need refrigerated as long as the packaging keeps its integrity.
So, if you eyes haven’t glazed over now for the how. One thing I neglected to tell you is that cheddar also comes 500-lb. barrels. Yep 500 lbs., which is about 15% bigger than a 55 gal. drum. This is what we for the most part used to make American. I mentioned blending. First, we cut four 500 lb.-barrels into 25-lb. slabs by pushing them through wires using hydraulics. We had a two thousand-lb. capacity grinder that resembled what you might see at the butcher shop to make hamburger,except this was about as big as car and had a 100-hp electric motor. The slabs got mixed and ground at the same time and sent to the cooker, where the emulsifiers were added and salt and water to bring it to the required moisture content. We had a 1000 lb.-cooker that melted the cheddar using steam. We brought the temperature up to at least 168 degrees, or pasteurization temperature. The cooker had an auger that also mixed the blend. This was about a five-minute process.
All told, we averaged 10,000 lbs. an hour. The molten cheese then went into a heated surge tank with a 1500-lb. capacity. From there, it was pumped to a filling machine that measured 5 lbs. at a time and dropped it into a cardboard box, lined with a plastic pouch that self-sealed from the heat of the cheese. The boxes were synced with the filler on a conveyor, a lid was placed over the box, and six boxes were placed in a master box, finally, on a pallet sixty boxes, all told. This took sixteen people, many of whom could be eliminated with equipment I couldn’t afford. The pallets were taken to a blast cooler overnight to stop the cheese from continuing to cook in the pouch. If it didn’t cool quickly, it could discolor. For about five years, we proceed about 1.5 million lbs. of American cheese a month. Many times, it was shipped back to where the cheddar came from, the dog was still chasing its tail.
I hope this covers all you wanted to know ( probably some you didn’t) about Government Cheese. I can answer any questions in the comments. Remember I am not really a PHCheese, so take it easy on me.Published in