A changing world

Last week, Jessie’s post mentioned MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese, an early 20th century foodstuff we found in Christchurch. This cheese pot, which looked so insignificant and sounded so odd, represents one of the steps en route to our modern culinary world. Even finding it on a site in Christchurch is representative of much that was changing in the 19th century. Today we think nothing of eating food from all over the world, some of which arrives on boats and some on planes. In fact, for many of us, much of what we eat probably isn’t produced in New Zealand, in spite of the importance of farming and horticulture in our current economy – and historically.

Maclaren's Imperial Cheese: then and now. Images: J. Garland & Clockwork Lemon blog.

MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese: then and now. Images: J. Garland & Clockwork Lemon.

What was this MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese? Modern descriptions – yep, you can still buy it – describe it as grated cheddar, but it looks like anything but. Sure, the cheddar might have been grated, but then a few other things are no doubt mixed in. Today, a range of preservatives have probably been added. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who knows what it was. But even then, it’s unlikely just to have been grated cheese, as that probably wouldn’t have survived the journey from Canada to New Zealand in good condition.

There are a range of things that are interesting about MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese turning up in  early 20th century Christchurch. Firstly, it’s an ‘added value’ product, and those weren’t nearly so common in the 19th century as they are now. It represents a divergence from the sale of plain old ordinary cheese (or not so ordinary in some cases ) to something that has led to the plastic cheese slices that many of us probably had in our school lunches – or, if you’re American, to Kraft cheese, which was possibly quite closely related to MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese.

Secondly, even in the late 19th and early 20th century, New Zealand was producing a lot of dairy products. Not quite on the scale we do now, and we couldn’t export it then. So why on earth would we need to import Canadian cheese? (No offence to Canadians.) And how could it compete on the New Zealand market when it had been shipped that distance? And what on earth had been added to it to make it last that long? These aren’t questions we necessarily think about much these days – the speed of travel often means that nothing needs to be added to a food product to make it last the journey half way around the globe. And then there are other products with a shelf life of five years. Five years. Unimaginable in 19th century Christchurch.

A 1902 article discussing the sale of MacLaren's Imperial Cheese (albeit with a spelling mistake). Image: Evening Post 10/7/1902: 4.

A 1902 article discussing the sale of MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese (albeit with a spelling mistake). Image: Evening Post 10/7/1902: 4.

An early 20th century grocer's advertisement. Image: Poverty Bay Herald 13/6/1902: 2.

An early 20th century grocer’s advertisement. Image: Poverty Bay Herald 13/6/1902: 2.

Which brings me to the third point that makes MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese in turn of the  century Christchurch so interesting. People mostly bought fresh produce in the 19th century. There was no such thing as a supermarket, although grocers did sell a range of products. You might have kept a dairy cow, pigs and/or chooks to supply some products (yes, even in the city); meat would have come from the butcher (or maybe from one of those pigs); and you might have grown your own vegetables, or bought them from the greengrocer, who probably only sold locally grown vegetables. Now, let’s not get too rose-tinted spectacles about this: it would’ve meant no – or very few or very expensive – bananas, oranges, blueberries, aubergines or any of those other things we love so much.

As mentioned last week, Kraft now own and produce MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese. And MacLaren’s may not have been that dissimilar to the original Kraft cheese, which was first manufactured in 1915, by one James Kraft. James was a cheese seller, peddling his cheddar from his cart around the city of Chicago. His business wasn’t doing too badly but the problem was that his cheese went off pretty quickly in the Chicago heat. But then he discovered that if he melted his cheese, while stirring it constantly, the fats didn’t ‘bleed out’ and he could pour the resulting mixture into a can and sell it. And it didn’t spoil in the heat (Moss 2013: 162-163). Voila! A revolution that changed the world. Think I’m overstating the case? Maybe. But look at Kraft’s position in the world today. And think about our current obesity epidemic, and all the causes that have been cited for that.

That seemingly innocuous jar of MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese, then, represents change. Change from a relatively local diet – and yes, to use modern parlance, a relatively low impact diet – to one where, in theory at least, anything in the world can be eaten anywhere at anytime, processed food can have a shelf life of five years, and all the change that has wrought.

Katharine Watson


Clockwork Lemon, 2012. Savory cheddar chive shortbread. [online] Available at: http://www.clockworklemon.com/2012/12/cheddar-chive-shortbread.html.

Evening Post. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Moss, M., 2013. Salt Sugar Fat: How the food giants hooked us. W. H. Allen, London.

Poverty Bay Herald. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

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