The stringy snack with a mysterious past

The curious history of string cheese

Hello and welcome to Snack Stack, the newsletter that explores the history, origins, and cultural significance of snacks. If you like it, please subscribe! There’s a free snack every Wednesday (like this one!) and paid subscribers also get snacks on Monday and Friday. Check out past snacks here.

String Cheese

The basics

Cheese you can peel into long strings. (Why? FOR FUN.) The packaged variety is usually mozzarella, but many other kinds exist.

The place

All over the world, but most common in North America and Europe.

The story

This is the fiftieth snack we’ve featured here on Snack Stack, and as I’ve worked on all these posts, I’ve learned a few things. One is that the world holds endless—delightfully endless—variations on certain snacks, like hand pies (Cornish pasties! Jamaican patties! Australian Chiko Rolls!) and cold fruit mixed with ice cream or shaved ice (Falooda! Cholado! Halo halo!).

Another thing I’ve learned: When it comes to snack origin stories, don’t trust corporate histories. This should be obvious, but I hadn’t thought about it much. They’re interesting works of capitalist micro-mythology, but once you dig a bit deeper, there’s often a more tumultuous reality or a claim to being “first” is just plain wrong wrong.

When I started researching today’s snack, string cheese, I did what one does in the year 2021: I turned to Google. This pointed me to several articles offering a history of the peelable product, including one from the Atlantic, published in 2014, titled “The Secret Life of String Cheese.” Perfect! The story—like many others on the internet—credits Baker Cheese in Wisconsin as the inventors of string cheese and points to a specific moment, in 1976, when the company’s owner was trying to come up with something snackable and took a look at the mozzarella they usually made for pizzerias:

Frank wondered what would happen if he took this continuous flow of mozzarella and simply chopped them into strips?

“He would cut off strips and hand stretch them and roll them up and cut them into ropes, into little three, four, five inch pieces,” Brian said. “He’d soak them in the salt brine—this highly concentrated salt water—and he realized by doing it this way, cheese would have ‘stringing’ characteristics.”

That’s a good story! It has a character, a setting, a time, a problem to be solved, a denouement when what was once mere cheese becomes string cheese, to be packaged in a million lunchboxes. Like the snack itself, the tale is satisfyingly layered and wrapped up nicely for easy consumption. You can read an almost identical version on the Baker Cheese website.

But parts of this narrative began to come apart—to shred into thin pieces, if you will—when I did what I always do next: I looked at Google Books and newspaper databases like ProQuest. It quickly became apparent that while the Baker Cheese story might be valid—I’m not here to question Frank Baker’s mozzarella moment—it was by no means the first string cheese, or even one of several variations happening at the same time, as the Atlantic story surmises could be the case. Because once you look around, it’s clear that string cheese, as a concept, was firmly established in American culture—and many other cultures—by the 1960s.

It was sufficiently well-known, for example, it was used as an analogy in a 1964 book on personal injury litigation practice:

It figures prominently in this remarkable passage from a parody of the Bible published in 1969:

And here, in this grainy document from the Pennsylvania Department of Commerce, is a business listing from 1956 for a company that specialized in string cheese:

So while Frank Baker in Wisconsin may have had that moment of inspiration and begun making cheese that he advertised as “string,” the product itself, with that name and that whole concept, had been around for a while.

With a bit more research—join me down that rabbit hole if you’d like!—we find even older mentions of string cheese, in travel books about Armenia (published in 1910):

… and Ecuador (published in 1924):

There’s also documentation that quesillo—“that stringy, tangy Mexican cheese that melts perfectly right on the griddle,” as Lapham’s Quarterly put it in a recent history—originated in the small town of Reyes Etla in 1885, a happy accident resulting from a minor mistake by a teenager.

The more I dug, the clearer it became that string cheese is, in fact, a snack like hand pies and cold fruit-based drinks: a snack with countless variations and no single origin story. This humble dairy-stick holds the distinction of being one of the few universal snacks. And it makes sense, if you stop and think about it, considering the ubiquity of cheese and the joy of pulling off those strings (which I hope you still do, even as an adult—it’s fun! Enjoy life!).

Even in recent years, string cheese continues to spread into new places, decades—make that more than a century—after its origins. It’s now a major product in Ireland, too, where a brand called Cheestrings debuted in the mid-1990s, and where a reporter profiling one manufacturer captured its slightly absurdist appeal: “Roald Dahl would have a thousand squirrels behind here playing cats’ cradle with lengths of molten cheese.”

From Ireland, string cheese made its way, inevitably, to the land of Epoisses and Comté, in 2004. There were some difficulties, but in the end, the French, too, came to love string cheese:

“French children were finding it difficult to pronounce. And it was embarrassing because it was reminding them of a word for female underwear,” O’Riordain says. After 18 months Cheestrings were rebranded as Ficello (after ficelle the French for string). The other cultural barrier was the French palate. The red cheddar was “positively disliked” by French children and they wanted a softer string. A Gouda Emmental cheese mix was tested instead and it went down a treat. In Holland, the plain Gouda cheese also went down better than the British and Irish cheddar version.

“In France the lunchbox doesn’t exist,” O’Riordain says. “So the ‘home-from-school-and-starving’ moment was the one which we were playing for.” Today Ficello is in 7.5 per cent of French households, according to Kerry Foods estimates.

For anyone who needs a primer on how to properly eat string cheese, here you go:

Get it here

In your grocer’s dairy section or online thousands of places.

Will you like it? 

Probably!

Also

If you’re interested in more of a scientific angle, check out this paper on “The Structure and Rheology of String Cheese,” which includes this observation: String cheese is eaten as a snack. Therefore, stringiness is an important attribute for string cheese.” It also features this graphic:

Share Snack Stack

Sign up for a paid subscription to support this newsletter and get three posts about the history, origins, and cultural meaning of snacks every week (if you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you). Happy snacking!