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Government Cheese: Making America Grate Again

 

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.

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  1. Profile photo of Nanda Panjandrum Thatcher

    Ummm, ummm, ummm….Had grilled cheese [Velveeta] and tomato soup for a light dinner yesterday, PHC…I feel better about it now…Thanks!

    • #1
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:10 pm
  2. Profile photo of MLH Member
    MLH

    Is Velveeta even cheese?!

    • #2
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:14 pm
  3. Profile photo of harrisventures Thatcher

    So what about Jack Cheese? And why isn’t your handle PHJackCheese? Also, why does milk cost so much?

    If a 500lb block of Cheddar discolors in a Government Warehouse, does it make any sound?

    You have really opened up a cheese box of philosophical conundrums. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight pondering all the questions about cheese melting down and cooling in my mind…

    • #3
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:20 pm
  4. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    harrisventures (View Comment):
    So what about Jack Cheese? And why isn’t your handle PHJackCheese? Also, why does milk cost so much?

    If a 500lb block of Cheddar discolors in a Government Warehouse, does it make any sound?

    You have really opened up a cheese box of philosophical conundrums. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight pondering all the questions about cheese melting down and cooling in my mind…

    I don’t know Jack Cheese.

    • #4
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:22 pm
  5. Profile photo of Nanda Panjandrum Thatcher

    MLH (View Comment):
    Is Velveeta even cheese?!

    Help me out here, PHC…

    • #5
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:23 pm
  6. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    MLH (View Comment):
    Is Velveeta even cheese?!

    In the nineteen thirties the government set what is called standards of identity for dairy products. If I remember Velveeta is classified as a cheese product which means it can contain other ingredients such as dairy whey and it is allowed to have a higher moisture content and less fat than American cheese. In my opinion it is cheese mostly and it is the largest selling product of its kind in the world. Process Cheese food is a step above a cheese product.

    • #6
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:37 pm
  7. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    Ummm, ummm, ummm….Had grilled cheese [Velveeta] and tomato soup for a light dinner yesterday, PHC…I feel better about it now…Thanks!

    I happen to know that is a favorite in your neck of the woods.

    • #7
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:39 pm
  8. Profile photo of Nanda Panjandrum Thatcher

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    Ummm, ummm, ummm….Had grilled cheese [Velveeta] and tomato soup for a light dinner yesterday, PHC…I feel better about it now…Thanks!

    I happen to know that is a favorite in your neck of the woods.

    …And of ST’s (the Velveeta) for mac & cheese; if I recall an archival post correctly…

    • #8
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:42 pm
  9. Profile photo of Arahant Member

    How much in our tax money goes for this reprocessing?

    • #9
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:52 pm
  10. Profile photo of Z in MT Member

    We Americans love our processed cheddar cheese foods. American Cheese, Velveeta, Cheese Whiz, Cheese in a Spray Can…, etc.

    I have noticed that the price of cheese has come down lately. You can get some pretty good sharp cheddar (almost crumbly) right now $2.50 lbs at the same price of the Mild or Medium.

    • #10
    • January 10, 2017 at 7:52 pm
  11. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):
    How much in our tax money goes for this reprocessing?

    I sold my business in 1996 and haven’t kept up but when I did the processing in to American the price was set at twelve and one half cents a pound. There was also what was called over run which added a few more cents.

    • #11
    • January 10, 2017 at 8:03 pm
  12. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    Z in MT (View Comment):
    We Americans love our processed cheddar cheese foods. American Cheese, Velveeta, Cheese Whiz, Cheese in a Spray Can…, etc.

    I have noticed that the price of cheese has come down lately. You can get some pretty good sharp cheddar (almost crumbly) right now $2.50 lbs at the same price of the Mild or Medium.

    Yes considering how everything else has gone up, cheese is a bargain but it is the milk producers that are taking a beating.

    • #12
    • January 10, 2017 at 8:05 pm
  13. Profile photo of IanMullican Coolidge

    I had a 7-year cheddar a while ago that was amazing, but after this article it has me thinking:

    Can all cheddars make it that far aging, or do some need to get American-ized before others?

    • #13
    • January 10, 2017 at 8:25 pm
  14. Profile photo of Muleskinner Member

    Blessed are the cheesemakers.

    • #14
    • January 10, 2017 at 8:27 pm
  15. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    IanMullican (View Comment):
    I had a 7-year cheddar a while ago that was amazing, but after this article it has me thinking:

    Can all cheddars make it that far aging, or do some need to get American-ized before others?

    Some do not benefit as well as others in the aging process. You want to age only the best. How and where the cheese makes a difference , right down to the temperature and packaging. The best cheese for aging is made from either raw milk or heat treated not pasteurizated milk. The best temperature would be about 42-45 % Seven years is probably not much different than four years if the conditions are right. Seven years sounds like someone lost it in storage. I bet it was all crumbling and gritty. That is good . I can taste it now.

    • #15
    • January 10, 2017 at 8:40 pm
  16. Profile photo of Ned Walton Member

    Fascinating post, PH. I’m always interested in industrial processes and the addition of cheese makes it even more so.

    • #16
    • January 10, 2017 at 8:40 pm
  17. Profile photo of The Reticulator Member

    PHCheese (View Comment):
    The best cheese for aging is made from either raw milk or heat treated not pasteurizated milk

    How about cheese from milk from grass-fed cows? I have heard anecdotally that it is very good. The dairy at my old workplace went to a pasture-dairy system where the cows were free to graze during the summer (and were milked by robots, now a common thing). I heard that it resulted in some excellent cheese, but I don’t remember anyone saying whether it was good cheese for aging.

    • #17
    • January 10, 2017 at 8:57 pm
  18. Profile photo of The Reticulator Member

    Ned Walton (View Comment):
    Fascinating post, PH. I’m always interested in industrial processes and the addition of cheese makes it even more so.

    Me, too.

    I remember the jokes and the commentary about government cheese, but I appreciate getting a behind-the-scenes description like this.

    • #18
    • January 10, 2017 at 8:59 pm
  19. Profile photo of The Reticulator Member

    Muleskinner (View Comment):
    Blessed are the cheesemakers.

    And Wisconsin blessed us in turn by not giving its electoral votes to Ms Hitlery.

    • #19
    • January 10, 2017 at 9:02 pm
  20. Profile photo of iWe Reagan
    iWe

    I loved this. Fascinating!

    • #20
    • January 10, 2017 at 9:09 pm
  21. Profile photo of wilber forge Member

    Industrial Government Cheese aside.

    Many moons ago, we visited a Swiss Cheese making place in Holmes County, Ohio. Famous for not only the German Heritage, but the cheese. To begin the tour of the place we were to see a large, hairy burly fella in a sleeveless tshirt stirring a large copper pot of God knows what. Somewhere else the stuff was formed into large wheels and of the curing rooms it went for years.

    In the end, there were four choices of which ours was Extra Sharp Swiss. Not recommended for small children. The stuff smelled like ripe gym socks and would burn your mouth if not taken in small amounts. The stuff was of Divine Nature to the palate. As that was long ago they now sell out so quickly, the product is no longer cured long enough to achieve that level of perfection. That is as per current management, Bummer.

    That aside, Velveeta cannot legally be classified in any manner as real cheese and is available in stores in another area as a Cheese Like substance.

    What the heck, people like it anyway, so I say Limburger to all complainers, try some instead.

    • #21
    • January 10, 2017 at 10:06 pm
  22. Profile photo of LC Member
    LC

    This is so interesting.

    I’ve never tried Velveeta. I’ll stick to American for grilled cheese sandwiches.

    • #22
    • January 10, 2017 at 10:25 pm
  23. Profile photo of Hoyacon Member

    Reeaallly interesting. Makes me want to expand my horizons beyond pasteurized processed cheese food. And how do they get the cheese into those whipped-cream-like cans for squirting?

    • #24
    • January 11, 2017 at 12:08 am
  24. Profile photo of LC Member
    LC

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    And how do they get the cheese into those whipped-cream-like cans for squirting?

    Doesn’t sound like something I’d want to try.

    • #25
    • January 11, 2017 at 1:47 am
  25. Profile photo of Matt Balzer Member

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    Reeaallly interesting. Makes me want to expand my horizons beyond pasteurized processed cheese food. And how do they get the cheese into those whipped-cream-like cans for squirting?

    Not sure why, but the spray version of Cheez Whiz is better than it is in a jar.

    • #26
    • January 11, 2017 at 1:51 am
  26. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    PHCheese (View Comment):
    The best cheese for aging is made from either raw milk or heat treated not pasteurizated milk

    How about cheese from milk from grass-fed cows? I have heard anecdotally that it is very good. The dairy at my old workplace went to a pasture-dairy system where the cows were free to graze during the summer (and were milked by robots, now a common thing). I heard that it resulted in some excellent cheese, but I don’t remember anyone saying whether it was good cheese for aging.

    This opens a interesting discussion. You might remember June is Dairy Month. It is because of the historical glut of milk in that month because the cows were in the pasture and getting lots of good grass rather than the bottom of the barrel silage from last year. However you need to be very careful because the milk can pick up bad flavor such as wild onions and other weeds.As you probably know all cheese is a version of white except for when cows are on grass then it picks up the geenish yellow tint, not the orange or deep yellow from food coloring. If summer cheese is carefully inspected for off flavors and smells by an expert it makes fine cheese for aging. You might have seen the ads for cheese from California with cows in a beautiful pasture. Most California cows never see daylight,they stand in a barn their whole life.

    • #27
    • January 11, 2017 at 6:37 am
  27. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    iWe (View Comment):
    I loved this. Fascinating!

    Did you get your jacket yet?

    • #28
    • January 11, 2017 at 6:39 am
  28. Profile photo of PHCheese Member
    PHCheese Post author

    wilber forge (View Comment):
    Industrial Government Cheese aside.

    In the end, there were four choices of which ours was Extra Sharp Swiss. Not recommended for small children. The stuff smelled like ripe gym socks and would burn your mouth if not taken in small amounts. The stuff was of Divine Nature to the palate. As that was long ago they now sell out so quickly, the product is no longer cured long enough to achieve that level of perfection. That is as per current management, Bummer.

    What the heck, people like it anyway, so I say Limburger to all complainers, try some instead.

    I have been to many cheese factories like you described. Aging cheese is a tough deal. Let’s say yo have the modest goal of selling 200 lbs a day of 3 year cheese. That means you would wait 1095 days for your first sale and you would have 219,000 lbs in storage which is expensive. It just $2 a lb with interest you have nearly $500,000 tied up. What happens is people start eating their young as the say in the business.Eat the seed corn if you will. Contemplate going three years without a sale but having bills to pay the whole time. Of course this can’t be done at such a small scale as 200 lbs a day so multiply by perhaps 50 or 100 and you are talking serious money. This applies to Limburger as well to a lesser degree.

    • #30
    • January 11, 2017 at 7:00 am
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