Posted on December 23, 2021
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Immediately on Friday afternoon, I went to the Philadelphia Cream Cheese website to sign up for the “Spread The Feel” campaign. Amid an ongoing shortage of cream cheese, parent company Kraft Heinz in Philadelphia is paying customers $20 for not making their Christmas cheesecake.
In exchange for an email address and basic personal information, Kraft will pay up to 18,000 customers to purchase alternative sweets this Christmas week. Good deal for someone like me who doesn’t bake cheesecake or celebrate Eid.
Overwhelmed with traffic, the site crashed. It turns out that Kraft is striving not only to meet the demands of its customers, but also the demands of those who try not to buy its products.
“They use imperfection to create a sensation,” said Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of Contagious: Why You Pick Up Things. He sees the viral marketing tactic as a smart way to generate word of mouth ads.
Cream cheese crisis
Recently, news coverage has focused on the causes of cream cheese shortages. Forward’s investigation found it was linked to water issues at a Kraft plant in upstate New York. Others speculated about labor shortages and the effects of a cyberattack on a factory in Wisconsin. Kraft has managed to turn a brand crisis into something positive.
The campaign asking Americans to skip holiday traditions has changed the conversation, but it raises a new question: Is cheesecake really a Christmas thing?
If so, this is a major step in the Americanization of Jewish culture. While there are competing recipes for cheesecake from around the world, the New York cheesecake made with cream cheese is a Jewish dessert, first invented by restaurateur Arnold Rubin in Manhattan in the late 1920s. Like bread, cheesecake went from being a Jewish food to a New York food, before it was absorbed into America as a whole. Joining eggnog and gingerbread on the holidays by the fireplace for chanting families in matching sweaters is a huge leap.
This means that Judaism, at least in its richest and fattest form, has become acceptable in the American Hallmark movie version. If Christmas cherry cheesecake isn’t your thing, Kraft’s promo is a bold marketing strategy to change American tradition—attempts like these are almost a tradition in themselves.
Of course, Kraft is careful about the way Fortune 500 companies tend to be. In their promotional video, they describe cheesecake as a holiday rather than a Christmas tradition. But the passionate music, candy canes, and Santa cookies leave no doubt – they’re not talking about Hanukkah.
One person who isn’t shy about saying cheesecake is a Christmas staple is Alan Rosen. Rosen, the third-generation owner of Juniors, a Brooklyn cheesecake giant, doesn’t miss the chance to associate his family’s Jewish recipe with the Christian holiday. In an interview about the lack of cream cheese, he told Bloomberg, “Bread without cream is one thing, Christmas without cheesecake is another.”
Every December, for nearly two decades, Rosen has gone to home shopping network, QVC, to sell Christmas-themed cheesecakes. “Fruit Cake can’t compete,” he told me over the phone.
He has the numbers to back him up. “In mail orders, we have shipped 50,000 to 60,000 cakes in the past 10 days,” he said. For Juniors, which has four restaurants, sells in 8,000 supermarkets, and ships directly to consumers, half of its annual business is in November and December.
But baked goods and rich foods in general are on the rise at this time of year. The line runs around the corner at Russ & Daughters too, but that doesn’t mean Santa Claus eats bread and lox.
Is cheesecake even a Christmas “thing?”
To find out if cheesecake is really a Christmas thing, I spoke to Jerry Bowler, author of four books on the history of Christmas. He replied on a phone call, “No, if you look at the list of the 100 best Christmas recipes from around the world, you won’t find cheesecake.”
Unfortunately, there is no such list. So, I consulted the shelves of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in Manhattan’s East Village. The 1976 Time Life volume “Holiday Cookbook” features more than 20 Christmas desserts, including mince pie and Yule records, but none of them use cream cheese. The 1980 book “A Joy of Cheesecake” discusses the Orthodox traditions of Easter but not Christmas.
Kraft herself has released cream cheese cookbooks in Philadelphia. In the 1981 edition, there was no mention of Christmas, but by 2002 Kraft began including holiday-themed recipes, such as Philadelphia cheese sliced into a triangle and topped with DiGiorno’s Pesto Sauce to resemble a Christmas tree. The stick of cinnamon serves as the stem. It does have cheesecake, but cream cheese Christmas creations are mostly appetizers and cookies.
Likewise, the 2013 Junior cookbook includes menus for Hanukkah, barbecues, and even Easter, but not Christmas. Their previous book of 50 Cheesecake Recipes features a variation on Christmas raspberries, but then again, they have recipes for just about every holiday.
And here’s the thing: Cream cheese is like a spreadable white cloth, ready to adapt to any cultural need. If you search Google for “Christmas cheesecake,” pages and pages of colorful options will appear. But the same thing happens if you google for “Father’s Day cheesecake” or any other holiday and cheesecake. Cream cheese has been flexible and marketable since its inception.
It was invented in the 1870s by a non-Jewish farmer in upstate New York, and was successfully marketed to the Jewish side of the Lower East Side.
Even New York cheesecake owes its success to dairy owners, according to Jeffrey Marks, a retired rabbi who is an expert on cheese.
In a chapter from Tastes of Faith: Jewish Eating in the United States, Marx tells how the dairy company Breakstone promoted Jews in 1925 to replace cream cheese with curd in recipes for Old World cheesecake they brought from the East. Europe. Nearly a century later, these pies are being promoted as a Christmas dessert.
According to Rosen, Christmas cheesecakes were a member. “Back in the 30’s or even 40’s, strawberry cheesecakes sold like hotcakes at Christmas,” he recalls. The red and white swirl made it perfect for the holiday. Rosen, who would be as happy to sell a cake to family members as Christmas, embraced the trend, designing a green, white, and red cake that proved popular.
Making a basic piece
But it takes more than just food coloring to make cheesecake a staple on the Christmas table. “Christmas is based on memories,” explained Bowler, who teaches at the University of Manitoba. “It’s very hard to dislodge something, once it’s in. It really takes a long time.” However, many brands have tried to imitate their products. According to Buller, in the early 1900s, Ivory soap promoted leaving a bowl of water and a bar of soap so Santa could clean up the soot. Oreo has long-running commercials with Santa dipping his trademark biscuit sandwich in milk, unlike traditional homemade cookies.
While in the 1930s Coca-Cola successfully promoted Santa in red and white to match its brand, most attempts to sneak into the holiday were unsuccessful. “Christmas is Teflon,” Bowler said.
If Kraft manages to make cheesecake with the new fruit, it likely marks one of the rare times when Jewish culture influenced the Christian holiday according to Stephen Nissenbaum, the American Jewish historian who wrote The Battle of Christmas, recounting the birth of the modern tradition. It won’t make cheesecake any less Jewish, but it will make Christmas a little more Jewish. Nissenbaum finds some joy in this. In an email he said this would be “a nice inversion of the usual thing about how American Jews customize Christian Christmas rituals to celebrate Hanukkah.”
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