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The snack in a spray can
A brief history of Easy Cheese
Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:
Manufacturer photo / Snack Stack illustration
The August 11, 1964 edition of the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office is a gallery of the era’s corporate-branding attitude and aspiration. The newly-trademarked brand names and logos swing with style and space-race flair, among them a “Jetsons”-evoking kid astronaut selling Jet Pop popcorn. On page 59, there’s a logo-free brand name that seems comparatively sedate, until you understand what it is: Snack Mate, a new type of cheese that slowly sprays out of a can—push the nozzle at the top and out comes a thick, wavy, edible ribbon. You know it now as Easy Cheese.
Snack Mate was a marvel of processed cheese, evolving from the likes of Kraft Singles (introduced in 1950) and Cheez Whiz (1953). By the time it launched, in 1965, it had been in the works for five years, as one of several products championed by Nabisco CEO Lee S. Bickmore, who took the job in 1961. Nabisco was trying to boost its cracker sales, and Bickmore was enthusiastic about Snack Mate’s potential to provide an assist. He told Media Decisions, in 1967, “We always start with the consumer and work back. In this enlightened marketing era, we try to figure out what the gals want even though they might not know themselves. Then we develop the product.”
The gals. In Bickmore’s words, you can see the product’s patronizing pitch: an offer of convenience, but also one that says “We can do this better than you.” Take a look at the early ads below, especially the one on the left, whose message seems to be, “A man made this to help you out.” (Note the implicit offer of assistance in the brand name: Snack Mate—kind of like Hamburger Helper, which would come along in 1970, but … for snacks.)
Nabisco’s advertising was directed exclusively at women, with ads in magazines like Look and Seventeen showing a “mother’s hand applying the cheese spray to Nabisco crackers.” Other ads, both in magazines and on television, focused on party planning. The precise form of the product created the sense of an experience—“Which is the product and which is the package?” Harry F. Schroeter, Nabisco’s vice president of packaging, asked rhetorically in 1968. “I don’t know. We’re selling the combination of product and package.”—but the focus was less on novelty than convenience, authenticity (it’s real cheese, make no mistake!), and a sense of refinement without formality. Again, look at those ads: How easy! How elegant! Here was something for a hostess to serve with pride to her friends, perhaps on top of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus.
Nabisco developed the formula for the cheese itself, over two years of testing, and then contracted with American Can Company to create the can. Kaukauna Dairy, a Wisconsin manufacturer that specialized in crocked cheddar, made the early versions of the cheese, which were initially tested in Dayton, Providence, and New Bedford, before moving on to another ten early markets and, finally, the entire USA. The test markets had seven flavors—American, cheddar, pimiento, pizza, shrimp cocktail, cheddar-bleu, and fried onion—with the first three included in the initial national roll-out, and the other four added a few months later. Snack Mate was an instant hit, sold directly alongside Nabisco crackers, creating an instant link for consumers between the two products (corporate synergy!).
In 1984, Snack Mate rebranded as Easy Cheese, losing the sense of being a nice helper and, in the new name’s wordplay, staking a bit more claim to the product’s novelty. Somewhere along the way—and perhaps aided by American food culture’s shift toward “a gourmet nation”—spray cheese’s underlying reputation also shifted, as the packaging overtook a sense of refinement or “authenticity” in the cheese itself. It was—and is—still used as a real food, of course, but in the popular imagination, it became more of a novelty, not quite but almost like a form of edible Silly String, that other fun-in-a-can product that came along in 1972. (NB: Please do not eat Silly String.)
What was once intended “for the gals” is now squarely in the realm of “dude food,” a subject media studies scholar Dr. Emily Contois discusses in her excellent book Diners, Dudes & Diets. Writing about a 2012 ad for Kraft Velveeta Shells & Cheese, Contois observes that “[the dude] triumphs as a slacker hero, celebrated for his lackadaisical work life and for eating whatever he wants.” A quick stroll through the YouTube videos about Easy Cheese (like this one from BuzzFeed) or student ads for the product show just how much the perception of the product has changed, becoming perhaps the ultimate in dude foods: it’s not something to put on prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and serve at a dinner party, it’s something to squirt directly into your mouth.
Get it here
Your local grocery store or convenience store in the USA and probably a lot of other countries. Here’s 12 cans for $70.89 on Amazon!
Pair it with
Ritz crackers and a fine $2 bottle of wine.
Will you like it?
Honestly, what you’ve just read is the most comprehensive history of Easy Cheese (for real, you’re welcome), but here are a couple other things to check out:
Please also know that “Physical-chemical properties” is by far the longest section of the Easy Cheese Wikipedia page and includes such insights as “Easy Cheese exhibits pseudoplastic behaviors during extrusion of the product, which can be represented using the Herschel-Bulkley Model.”
If you liked this post, please share it! This one took quite a bit of archival research to pull together and I’d love to spread it far and wide. It’s easy! Like cheese in a can!
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Check out the pantry (er, archives) here. Recent posts include a Russian candy bar made with blood, a Dutch cow udder snack (with a cameo by a charismatic poet), a cotton candy-filled crepe from Thailand, and a pollen candy from Iraq’s marshlands.