Herkimer and American Gastronomy

This post replaces an older version, with updated information. Notice “Herkimer” on the wheel of cheese being rolled by the plump bunny?

 

 

The artwork is the cover of Charles N. Miller’s (1899) Welsh Rabbit at Hildreth’s, an amusing panegyric on his cheesy subject. I referred to the book numerous times in my series on Welsh Rabbit, which starts here.

What is, or was, Herkimer? A famous cheese centre in America in the second half of the 19th century. It forms a little-known chapter in American culinary and commercial annals.

Herkimer is a county in central New York State, one of a group of counties that comprises the Mohawk Valley.

Every summer since 2015, a woman called Nan Ressue with others holds a New York cheese festival in Little Falls, Herkimer County. Ressue authored excellent notes, with sources listed, on the history of Herkimer cheese, which you may read here (Cheese Capital tab in “About Little Falls, NY”).

The history below relies largely on her account.*

A factory-based system established in the 1860s caused great increase in Herkimer cheese production. It largely ended with WW I, as much milk was diverted from creameries to make condensed milk for Allied forces. But cheese shipments had been declining since the 1880s.

Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa started to compete with Herkimer’s output, as did Canadian exports of cheddar. Much was from Ontario, still a cheddar stronghold.**

New York’s cheese exports, formerly strong in Britain, dropped in part due to frozen meat from Argentina and the Antipodes. It was introduced there at the same price as imported Herkimer, and displaced part of the market.

This point is made in a 1904 issue of The American Product Review. It shows that markets can be complex in the sense that competitive alternatives may range across food groups.

A trade that once attained an impressive 30M lbs of cheese per year, that created a busy cheese mart at Little Falls, was virtually at an end by 1920.

But in its heyday Little Falls bustled with cheese commerce, as an 1879 history of Herkimer County further attested.

Is this all in the past? Not quite. There has been a modest revival in the last two generations. The Herkimer Cheese Company, founded in 1949 in Little Falls, was the start.

Since its founding numerous small dairy farms and artisan dairies emerged to again produce fine New York cheese.

A cheddar-type was the main product of the original industry, white or orange-coloured (from anatto). Herkimer cheese was evidently prized for Welsh Rabbit, the melted cheese specialty that British colonists must have brought to America.

Charles Miller’s book appeared just as tolling time for Herkimer cheese was nigh. But culinary and beverage associations long endure.

In 1930 Arnold Shircliffe in The Edgewater Sandwich Book called for Hermiker cheese in numerous recipes, hot and cold. A sandwich on rye features Herkimer mixed with chopped pickles, lettuce, and bacon.

In the same period food writer Virginia Elliott recalled Herkimer’s heyday in her recipe for Welsh Rabbit, which specified “well-cured New York or Old English cheese”.

(Evidently a little was still made to supply these needs, or something similar was fetched).

The Little Falls cheese festival this year is scheduled for October. Little Falls is a rambling, atmospheric old riverside town, sheltered by verdant hills. This YouTube video produced by the City of Little Falls offers a fine visual tour.

I attended a few years ago, and it was excellent. At the time, it was held in July. October will be an even better time as the weather won’t be too hot.

For full details see the Festival website linked above.

Note re image: Sourced from Hathitrust, where Charles Miller’s book is catalogued as linked above. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*See also a later history of Herkimer County than I mention in the text, from 1893, for a detailed history of cheese-dairying in the County.

**An 1890s Britannica account of American dairying suggests factory cheese-making in Ontario was implanted by Herkimer County dairymen, and prior to that cheese was imported from Herkimer County. This is telling.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Herkimer and American Gastronomy”

  1. Many parts of the Mohawk and Hudson Valleys were well known dairy producers back in the mid to late 1800’s, and even well into the early 1900’s. My home county of Orange had Guernsey cows known for their rich milk. I remember going to a local farm in the 60’s that had a shop selling all sorts of dairy products, and the ice cream was spectacular. Still a decent number of dairy farms, but nothing like it used to be.

    Reply
    • Thanks for this, I think the innovation of Herkimer County was the factory system, which really took off from about 1860. That put the trade on the national and international maps.

      The Herkimer county histories I linked offer a fascinating contemporary look. I don’t know if modern academic, or that style, scholarship has looked at it, though.

      I may know one source, and will revert here if I can find it.

      Gary

      Reply

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