Is there any other kind of cream cheese besides Philadelphia? My colleague Allison Robicelli claims there is something called Temp-Tee that possibly exists only in New York City and, in her words, is “the only cream cheese worth spreading on bagels”, but I grew up out here on the sad, bagel- and schmear-deprived prairies of the Midwest, and what we got was Philly. It was is an essential ingredient in the cheesecake that is one of my family’s Three Sacred Recipes.
Now Priya Krishna over at Bon Appetit has written the story of how Philadelphia rose to cream cheese prominence, and I am, well, gobsmacked. Philadelphia brand cream cheese did not come from Philadelphia! All my life, I have believed in a lie.
The brand dates back to the late 1800s, when Pennsylvania dairies became known for their soft, creamy cheese made with whole milk. New York dairies, on the other hand, were making a version with skim milk that was much chalkier. One scheming New Yorker named William Lawrence started selling his own cream cheese (it was actually made of skim milk, with some lard mixed in for richness) under the label “Philadelphia,” hoping the Pennsylvania association would attract customers. He even trademarked the words “Philadelphia” and “Pennsylvania” in conjunction with cheese products. It worked—and sold. When the company merged with Kraft Foods in 1928 and developed a pasteurized version of the product, Philadelphia cream cheese became a household name.
Chicanery aside, Philadelphia became the one cream cheese to rule them all not just because of the whole Kraft thing but also because cooks all across the United States discovered its texture was ideal for baking. And not just cooks in the Kraft test kitchens, either. “I only believe in Philly cream cheese,” Claire Saffitz, the star of BA’s test kitchen, told Krishna. “You can mold it in your fingers,” Alex Raij, a chef at several Spanish restaurants in New York, explained. “It has that particular body that makes it easy to cream ingredients with. It naturally emulsifies.”
Philadelphia love has spread worldwide. In Spain, it’s spelled “Filadelfia,” and pronounced “Pea-la-del-pia.”
Krishna found some (quiet) voices of dissent, but considering how much everyone likes to argue about food, the widespread support for Philly is remarkable, and this is a fascinating read.