Last month Northfield-based Kraft Foods Inc. sold off Post, one of the country’s oldest cereal brands, for $2.6 billion. The deal was just the latest in the processed food behemoth’s complicated history of mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, and sell-offs. Shuffling properties in the pursuit of profit is of course nothing new among corporations, but the sale prompted me to take a good look at The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Cheese, an enormous coffee-table history of the 104-year-old company. Produced in-house and published in 2005, the book tells the story of innovators who bucked managerial shortsightedness and seemingly impossible technical challenges to create some of the most iconic products in the world pantry.
In 1998, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company’s research and development center in Glenview, Kraft packaging specialist Anne Bucher and a colleague put together a historical exhibit of technological patents. Bucher dug into the company archives and discovered a trove of oral histories of company inventors, beginning with founder James Lewis Kraft, the Chicago cheesemonger who figured out a way to melt cheddar without separating the proteins and fats, thus allowing him to package it in sterilized cans.
Bucher talked up the idea of a book on Kraft’s technological innovations—something that could be given to employees to impart a sense of the firm’s history and vision. A number of corporate divisions chipped in on the funding, and the company tapped Chicago writer Melanie Villines to write the book. Villines, a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who now lives in LA, says the firm didn’t want a dry, just-the-facts corporate history but an anthology of narratives driven by struggle and suspense.
She began by interviewing some 200 surviving inventors, several of whom were in their 90s. Her first subject was J.B. “Doc” Stine, a bacteriologist who standardized the company’s manufacturing of Swiss cheese. During World War II Kraft loaned him out to the USDA to help figure out how to ramp up penicillin production using bacteria isolated from Camembert. Stine died shortly after he spoke with Villines. “It got to the point where they were dropping like flies on me,” she says. “I’d interview them and two weeks later I’d see their obituary in the paper.”
Many of the inventors in the book are cast heroically—not surprising for a motivational publication heavy on the rah-rahs. What’s remarkable is the subdued but ever present subtext of conflict between management and R & D. When Maxwell House instant coffee was being developed for use in military rations, few in management believed it was even possible. The inventors persevered, and when one of them hit on a method of infusing aroma into the deodorized crystals, his boss marveled that instant coffee “finally had a soul.” Over and over inventors scored successes with products originally deemed impractical or unprofitable, from soft Philadelphia cream cheese to Stove Top Stuffing to Lunchables. The moral for Kraft employees, says Villines, is “Never say, ‘I can’t work on this because I can’t get time on the agglomerator.'”
It’s not likely that The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Cheese will ever be seen by a wide audience, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t find one. Villines has given talks on her research for the Chicago Foodways Roundtable and the Highland Park Historical Society. And the descriptions of industrial processes that went into products most Americans grew up with are fascinating. There are three chapters on Madison-based Oscar Mayer, which merged with Kraft in 1989. You don’t have to like processed foods to enjoy the tale of the company’s “Hot Dog Highway.”
In 1958 Oscar Mayer wanted to achieve national distribution for its wieners by increasing production capacity from 500 dogs per day to 5,000 per hour. An assembly line was developed, resembling a roller coaster and incorporating devices for mixing, chopping, stuffing, linking, smoking, cooling, and packaging in a continuous process. At first it shot wiener “batter” into casings so fast that the proteins aligned vertically within the sausage, which weakened them and made them disintegrate after cooking. To solve the problem, engineers installed fingerlike wires within the “wiener tunnel” that massaged the strands of protein horizontally, creating a stronger layer of protein on the outer layers of the batter for a tougher dog.
Initially the book was to be 12 chapters long, but as Villines continued with her research, it mushroomed to 18. She says she spent about two and a half months on each, though some were particularly tricky to sort out: “There were about 200 people who said they invented Miracle Whip.”
Before the book went to press the company let go of LifeSavers, which Villines devotes considerable space to, and all indications are that Post won’t be the last slacking product line on the block. As Kraft continues paring, its employees may question the value the company places on its technological accomplishments after all. But, says Villines, there’s still historical value in a book that tells people “I can fight for my idea. I won’t give up with the first person that says, ‘I don’t get it.'” v
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.