Cream cheese is one of the simplest of cheeses, but with a complex history. Born of a 19th century American craving for rich “French” style cheeses, the not-so-humble cream cheese became embedded in mainstream American and Jewish culture. Jews played a sizable role in the manufacture and distribution of cream cheese; Jewish peddlers, grocery owners, and dairymen brought cream cheese to the public. Joseph and Isaac Breakstone (originally Bregstein) were Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who opened a dairy store first in 1882 on New York’s Lower East Side.
Cream cheese is an offspring of the lighter Neufchâtel from France. In 1872, William A. Lawrence of New York created cream cheese by adding heavy cream to the Neufchâtel recipe.
Many cheese lovers associate cream cheese with the city of Philadelphia. However, Philadelphia is not the home of production, just sales. Farmers brought cheeses to Philadelphia, and consumers traveled there to purchase. Eventually a brand emerged, named for the city, though there were many competing brands at the time
Besides being involved in some of the original production and distribution of cream cheeses, where do Jews come into the picture? Contrary to popular belief, the Jewish “holy trinity” of bagels, lox, and cream cheese did not originate in Eastern Europe. The combination evolved over the years. Immigrant Jews were schmearing butter on dark or rye bread. They also enjoyed smoked fish, usually whitefish. But with the advent of Pacific salmon fishing and purveyance, Jews began to incorporate smoked or salty salmon into their repertoire. And they replaced the butter with cheese, the bread with bagels.
For more information on the fascinating history of cream cheese, consult the writings of the late Jewish food historian and writer Gil Marks (z”tl) and Jeffrey Marx, a Reform rabbi in Santa Monica, who is now acclaimed as the world’s premier authority on cream cheese history. I attended his presentation on cream cheese history at the Skirball in Los Angeles last summer, “The Whole Schmear”.
Check the blog for notes on the ever-growing trend in cream cheese – flavors!
Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress