The Southern snack that doesn't suck
A history of cheese straws
Hello, Snackers. What happened in 1877 to start the cheese straw trend? And why did it start to taper off a few years ago? Let’s investigate!
Here are a few things that happened in 1877:
The volcano Cotopaxi erupted in Ecuador, causing mudslides that killed 1,000 people
Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire
The Imperial Japanese Army defeated a group of samurai led by Saigō Takamori in the Battle of Shiroyama, ending the Satsuma Rebellion
Emile Berliner invented the microphone
In the span of less than one week, astronomer Asaph Hall discovered two moons of Mars (this is more than I have ever done in a whole year)
Cheese straws suddenly got popular in the USA
I found most of these consequential events on the year’s Wikipedia page, but for some reason no one has ever thought to write about the last fact. I’m here to correct this oversight.
So let’s talk about cheese straws.
If you’re unfamiliar with this delicious snack, perhaps some photos will help. You’ll note that they come in different styles, usually thick and bumpy or thin and twisty. (I have no doubt that some people reading this will have strong opinions about which is the real cheese straw.)
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In our snack origin investigations on this newsletter, the goal is usually to find the cultural context that led to its origins or popularity. Why does it exist or, failing that, what’s interesting about it?
Blue raspberry flavor? That was because of consumer fears about the safety of other food coloring. Singles by Gerber? That was a corporation’s cynical/desperate attempt to sell food to twentysomething baby boomers in the 1970s. Chinese chicken fingers? That one was a layered story of immigration, assimilation, and cultural appropriation in the overlapping worlds of tiki bars and Chinese-American cuisine (it’s also one of my own favorite posts, so go read it when you’re done here).
Cheese sticks, though, have stumped me. (Spoiler!) I have data but can’t make sense of it. Perhaps you can help. The key questions: What happened in 1877 to start the cheese straw trend? And why did it start to taper off a few years ago?
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Among the first modern crackers, which owe their name to the sound they make when eaten, were those made by a retired sea captain-turned-baker named Josiah Bent of Milton (today, you can visit the historic Milton factory store, which is still turning out crackers). In 1801, Bent started rolling the dough much thinner than hardtack, and by the 1840s and ’50s, bakers were adding shortening and yeast, which lightened the texture and quickly made them popular. Before long, these tastier versions of ship’s bread began appearing on menus alongside cheese as a fashionable after-dessert end to dinner.
At the same time, cheese and crackers became associated with saloons, where they put an edge on drinkers’ thirst. President Grover Cleveland apparently had a weakness for the pairing: “He would go into a beer saloon,” a friend reported, “call for a glass, and then begin on the cheese and crackers.”
In 2018, food historian Victoria Brady dug up some background information about cheese straws and noted that they were related to foods with other names, like “Ramequins a la Sefton” (which first appeared in 1828) and “cheese biscuits” (1837 and again in 1864). Brady’s early examples, for what it’s worth, all appear to have been published in British newspapers and magazines, but the timing is such that it seems likely that they were following the same snacking trends as the USA. That is, these recipes simply combined a popular pairing into a single food, in the same way that Nabisco created Cheez-Its (in 1921) to emulate rarebit in a single bite.
And maybe that’s enough context. Some genius turned the concept of cheese and crackers into a cheesy cracker, then made them into straw-like strips, and here we are. Cheese straws.
But there’s some thing about the timing of things that’s still bugging me, or at least intriguing me. Here’s the occurrence of the term “cheese straws” in texts scanned by Google Books (through 2019):
That initial bump in the 1870s is one you see in the Newspapers.com results, too, which go from a single mention of “cheese straws” in the 1860s, and one more from 1870 to 1876 … to 16 in 1877 and 22 in 1878, then 415 in the 1880s and 2,815 in the 1890s.
So what the heck happened in 1877? The obvious answer is, well, someone published a recipe and it was popular and then more people published recipes and that’s just how it goes (clearly, Doug). Maybe it’s no more than that and I need to stop overthinking it.
But it’s fascinating that cheese straws, as a food, appeared on both restaurant menus and newspaper recipe articles, and both around the USA and England, all within a few months of each other. They got very big very fast, in a way that these days would usually require some kind of viral Tik Tok challenge and a few not-quite-A-list celebrities just before their inevitable falls from grace.
Whatever the case, cheese straws took off. Here’s one of those early recipes, if you want to try it yourself:
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The story of cheese straws is one of low-key persistence. I don’t mean that in some broader symbolic sense—again, I couldn’t pin down a cultural story, so that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, very literally, they’ve been around for more than one hundred years, and for long stretches of that, they were in many, many cookbooks (just check Google Books) but never precisely on-trend or, for that matter, passé. The vast majority of those cookbooks appear to be extremely low-key affairs, published by a particular church or social club or locally-famous chef (real titles: Mrs. Owens' New Cook Book and Complete Household Manual, Presbyterian Cook Book, and How We Cook in Tennessee by the First Baptist Church Silver Thimble Society).
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As we look toward the first half of the 1900s, the broader trend held—cheese straws were popular, but staying largely in the realm of home cooking, and never a breakout star among snacks, although they did appear in the occasional ad as something you could do with cheese.
They had some ups and downs, but it’s a fairly consistent story until around 1980 or 1990, depending on how you count. Here’s that Ngram graph again. Look how cheese straws start to take off at this point—and then start to come down around … not sure, but it looks like 2017 or so.
I asked Twitter what was going on here, with the timing of the rise and fall, and a few smart people speculated that it had to do with Southern food’s recent time in the spotlight, perhaps paired with the popularity of the keto diet. (Here’s a recipe for keto cheese straws, if that’s your thing; here’s a good Maintenance Phase podcast episode on keto, if you’d like the deep-dive backstory.)
I’m not entirely convinced of the keto connection—cheese straws’ rise in popularity was well underway before that particular diet’s big moment—but I think there’s some real possibility that the rise of Southern food, in the broader culinary landscape, had an impact. There’s definitely correlation:
Still, I’m marking this one down as “needs further research.” If anyone out there has more thoughts on why cheese straws took off around 1877 and why they’ve started to fall in popularity—or if the numbers we’re talking about are all so small that the variation is basically meaningless—please chime in. Let the wild speculation begin!