At my grandmother’s house recently, I browsed through her copy of Life Magazine‘s Picture Cook Book (1958). It positioned itself as a new kind of cookbook, one copiously illustrated with pictures, one which had been seven years in the making, and one involved photographers traveling all over America and large parts of Europe.

It was from a very different time in a number of ways. The modern art of plating was nascent: even at the best restaurants, plated food looked slopped on the plate, in contrast with elegantly-arranged serving dishes. At La Tour d’Argent in Paris, a meal with wine and house specialties, costing as much as any in Europe, would set one back by US$16.

The cheese section of the book too was illustrated, with piled up rounds and wedges of cheese, mostly European ones. The three specifically American cheeses it noted were cream cheese, cottage cheese, and Liederkranz.

Why hadn’t I heard of this most American of cheese before? Because Liederkranz is extinct. It died in 1985 when a contaminated batch had to be recalled, the culmination of a number of troubled years of production for the cheese. Rumors abound that the bacterial strain necessary to make it may still be stored safely away somewhere, but there is certainly no great likelihood that it will be revived.

The cheese was “born” in the early 1890s by Emil Frey, a German cheesemaker who was commissioned by one of the owners of the Monroe Cheese Company in New York to make a Limburger-like cheese. It survived the company’s bankruptcy and sale, World War I, and a fraught move to Ohio, in part thanks to good advertising. A 1922 article from the journal Printer’s Ink, entitled “The Antithesis of ‘Reason-Why’ Copy Sells Cheese” examines how Monroe Cheese successfully and unusually positioned Liederkranz as an object of desire (for its “piquancy and zest”) rather than a necessity.

Frey moved to Ohio because of declining pasture availability in New York, but had to return for the wooden shelving for the cheese’s storage in order to rescue the bacteria strain. In 1929, the cheese was sold to Borden, although Frey stayed on, supervising its production, until his retirement in 1938.

Its real troubles began with a production facility fire in 1973. In 1981, Borden stopped production and sold the rights to the Fisher Cheese Company. In 1985, the last batch, contaminated, was recalled, and no more were produced. (In addition to the summary at Practically Edible and the Monroe Cheese Festival history page, a chapter is devoted to the cheese’s history in John Steele Gordon‘s 2001 book, The Business of America. )

Liederkranz was a strong, smelly cheese. One Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist, reminiscing in 1993, charmingly describes its potency: “Cutting into a piece of Liederkranz was like that Indiana Jones movie where they opened the ark of the covenant. “

An advertisement positions it as a manly cheese: “If you’ve a husband, pamper him with the cheese that’s a man’s idea of heaven – mellow, robust Liederkranz.” A 1945 Life ad for it shows a sign next to the cheese, with large letters spelling out “For Men”; a smiling woman writes underneath it “And Women Too”.

Liederkranz was named for a New York choral group. The name literally means “Wreath of songs” or “Song Circle”. It seems appropriate, on New Year’s Eve, to bid a year farewell with a defunct cheese and a round of good cheer and singing.

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*© S. Worthen 2009