This winter we tried making cottage cheese.  Taking an old proven family recipe originating from my farmer’s grandmother, we botched it up so badly that it wasn’t even fit to feed to the chickens. Rather it was consumed by a roaring fire and all utensils used were sterilized to the best of our ability. It’s going to take a bit more study before another attempt.

Thus it was doubly interesting to come across an article about cottage cheese in an agricultural book of 1918 published by the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s title, ‘The Rediscovery of an Old Dish‘ caught my eye, because really, what food could have been rediscovered way back in 1918?

The article begins with a lament on how many cherished dishes were gradually disappearing from the American table. One was grandmother’s old stand-by “Dutch” cheese or cottage cheese. Those grandmothers all knew how to make it, sometimes I think we just don’t know how to do as much we think we do. But anyway the article is quite serious about how ‘One might have thought this cheese had been guilty of a crime, since it had apparently been dropped by polite society.’

It took WWI to bring the focus back to waste not, want not. At that time 84 billion pounds of milk were produced annually, 41 per cent was used for butter-making. That resulted in 29 billion pounds of skim milk as a byproduct. Some of it was condensed, some fed to livestock or used in cooking, but much of was wasted.

The Department of Agriculture commenced  on a nationwide campaign to make better use of skim milk. Skim milk at that time was thought to contain little or no nourishment; so considerable effort went into developing a product that would change that mindset.

Meat was scarce during the war years. The food value of cottage cheese compares favorably with meat, claimed the article. So from a notion, it grew to be a plan. The campaign began to convince people that skim milk is valuable, that it can easily be made into cottage cheese of delicious flavor and high food value. That word easily was irritating after our endeavor.

Next this call was sent to the various state colleges: “Women trained in home economics are needed to demonstrate the making and use of cottage cheese in town and country.” Forty women answered the duty call, reporting to Washington, devoting more than a week ‘to intensive drilling on improved ways of making cottage cheese and using it in various dishes. Then the force went into the field and intensive campaigns of a week or more were conducted in the large cities from coast to coast.’

Demonstrations were given at all times in all kinds of places, including club meetings, school houses, cafeterias and settlement houses. The narrative records – any place that offered an opportunity for introducing the cottage-cheese propaganda to the people. There isn’t even an attempt to hide their promulgation to restore this almost forgotten dish to its place on our tables.

Why, even the moving picture theaters got involved with the promotion, exhibiting the department’s two-reel film “Why Eat Cottage Cheese”. A sample menu shows cottage cheese served in the first course as a soup;  a cottage cheese cutlet replaced the meat in the second course. The third course was a cottage cheese salad. A tart qualified for dessert. Like me, the attendees at the demonstrations were heard to say, “I never dreamed that cottage cheese could be used in so many ways.”

The ambitious movement resulted in soaring sales. The report left me pondering what actually determines the dietary choices for my family’s table.


Essays from My Farm House Kitchen | Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Renae B. Vander Schaaf, freelance writer, lives on a real working farm in northwest Iowa.

To Contact Renae B. Vander Schaaf, please email her at [email protected]