It is a weekday night and I am on YouTube, watching another great invention of the 21st century, the 3D printer, squeeze out a conical structure from a can of Easy Cheese. The can is upside-down, expelling an orange silly string from its plastic nozzle with a precision only possible via the sort of futuristic, but so very real, technology that has also been responsible for creating prosthetic limbs for amputees and new skin cells for burn victims.
Three-quarters of the way to the top of the Leaning Tower of “Cheeza”, a malfunction occurs that turns the spiraling cheese structure into a pile of goop. “Innovation at its purest form,” one YouTube user jests in the video’s comments section. “Try with ketchup,” another user adds.
Though I admit to watching this video more times than I can count, I can’t help but wonder about America’s original cheese-in-a-can, the fluorescent dairy sludge that every other country with a respectable cheese history undoubtedly judges us harshly for.
As I browse through YouTuber Andrew Maxwell-Parish’s other Easy Cheese 3D printing experiments, I begin to ask questions. For instance, why was this disgrace invented in the first place? What does it mean that this “spray cheese” is commonly seen as more suitable for science experiments than for consumption, and what does it say about us that grocery chains are not only keeping it stocked on the unrefrigerated shelves, but that we’re continuing to buy it?
Though sometimes referred to as “aerosol cheese,” Easy Cheese is not, in fact, a true aerosol, which would require that the contents of the can mix with a propellant. Though there is a propellant at the bottom of each can of Easy Cheese, a piston and plastic barrier prevent it from ever coming into contact with the food and thus, allow the spray cheese to come out as a thick string rather than a fine mist of fluorescent dairy. This technology also allows Easy Cheese to be dispensed upside down, sideways, and right side up, and also makes it suitable (or, rather, ideal) for cupboard rather than refrigerator storage.
Today, Easy Cheese is sold by Mondeléz International, Inc. which, along with spinoff company Kraft Heinz, are fine purveyors of a wide array of cheese products such as le string cheese, le Velveeta Processed Cheese Loaf, and le Cheez Whiz.
Before the stringed fromage was distributed by Modeléz International Inc., it was owned by Nabisco and manufactured in America’s cheese capital, Wisconsin. Invented in 1965 and originally called Snack Mate, the infamous spray cheese was actually made to look quite fanciful in full-color magazine advertisements, of which there were many.
The following timeline explores a few notable shifts in spray cheese advertisements, attitudes, and alliances.
The year after Snack Mater’s birth is a year marked by strong American opposition to the Vietnam War, the formation of the Black Panthers, and the popularity of miniskirts.
In this early advertisement, creators of Snack Mate are eager to point out to consumers that their cheese-in-acan can be sprayed on just about everything. Whether it be a wheat cracker, celery stick, or Rivas 3 halved hard-boiled egg, no innocuous food item is safe from becoming a vessel for the predecessor of Easy Cheese.
“Instant cheese for instant parties,” the advertisement’s tagline reads, perhaps hoping to renew some of America’s capacity for casual entertaining in the face of ever increasing anti-war rallies.
Richard Nixon has just taken office, over 350,000 young people are listening to Jimi Hendrix play the electric guitar with his teeth at Woodstock, and, for the first time in history, man is walking on the moon.
Snack Mate has also evolved. An ad shows a table top swathed in a sultry blue cloth, largely obstructed by a glossy platter of Nabisco crackers topped with fluffy, intricately designed yellow-orange peaks and puffs that would cause any cake designer to seriously reconsider the efficiency of their pastry bags and tips. Next to the steering wheel-sized plate are additional snack bowls overflowing with Ritz crackers and Triscuits and every flavor of Snack Mate available, which at this time include American, Cheddar, Pimiento, Swiss, and the mysterious “French Onion”.
Also on the table are multi-colored paper napkins stylishly wrapped in napkin holders and tossed around the table pseudo-haphazardly. In the corner of the photo, a large fruit bowl containing all of the modern American standards—an apple, orange, pear, and bunch of grapes—looms nearby as if to attest to Snack Mate’s nutritional integrity.
After 15 years of relative stagnancy, something’s gotta change. Snack Mate is no more — it changes hands from Nabisco to Kraft and is renamed Easy Cheese. A new day has dawned for the “aerosol cheese” once packaged as an ideal topping for every hors d’oeuvre ever served at a cocktail party.
With the name Easy Cheese—which likely resulted from Americans’ growing realization that the canned product was more efficient than elegant—comes the implication that it is still as convenient as it had always been and the suggestion that there is, in fact, actual cheese in there.
(It’s a feat to find any record of Snack Mate’s original ingredients — which were purportedly more “natural” than future spray cheeses — but the current ingredients list for Easy Cheese is available on the Kraft website. The “American” flavor contains a host of derived ingredients, ones that the modern American consumer has no doubt encountered in other processed foods many times over: milk, water, whey protein concentrate, canola oil, milk protein concentrate, sodium citrate, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid, sodium alginate, apocarotenal, annatto, cheese culture, and enzymes. Nothing life-threatening, of course, but “cheese culture” does appear second to last, and it’s certainly more processed than the large wheels of Parmesan being aged in Modena.)
Instead of full-page advertisements in the latest cooking magazine, one is hard pressed to locate even a cropped jpeg of a modern Easy Cheese can in the deepest crevices of the Internet, let alone an advertisement of spray cheese published after cassette tapes replaced vinyl as a popular music playback device. For reasons perhaps only cheese historians know, the age of spray cheese withered away in American grocery stores.
Though it’s certainly still stocked on shelves, you’ll never find it mentioned in this week’s coupon catalog, let alone standing majestically in a frontof-store display. Even finding people who still buy Easy Cheese is a challenge in and of itself. I’ve asked a slew of acquaintances—all of whom perked up at my mention of Easy Cheese and accompanying air gesticulations, as if I were trying to explain the concept of spray cheese to a fromagère in Brie—if they remembered the product.
Yes, they say, they remember the cheese they sprayed directly into their mouths as children. But didn’t it die out all those years ago along with cheese-filled hot dog weenies and purple ketchup?
Photos by Mike Mozart and twitchery