Whether deep-fried, covered in gravy, or just enjoyed on its own, cheese curds are probably one of the most versatile (not to mention tasty!) type of cheese known to Man. Aside from that satisfying ‘squeak’ you hear when you chomp down on a fresh curd, one of the best things about this snack is that it’s been around since, almost literally, the dawn of history.
The Earliest Curds
Cheese has been around for a lot longer than we think: preserved cheeses were found in the Taklamakan Desert in China that were dated back to 1615 BCE, with some studies finding evidence that ancient Europeans were making cheese as far back as 6,000 BCE, a whopping 8000 years ago.
While cheese itself is old, cheese curds may be even older. Cheese curds are created when fresh, pasteurized milk is processed with rennet and bacterial culture. This allows the milk to curdle, and these curds are then pressed to release the whey. Continue with this process, and you get cheese. Scientists, however, are unsure whether the process of creating cheese was invented before cheese curds (where cheese curds are the by-product of cheese making), or if creating cheese curds happened before cheese itself (where cheese was the result of a gradual evolution that started with cheese curds).
Suffice to say, for as long as cheese has been around, so have been cheese curds. It’s fun to imagine early civilizations enjoying this squeaky treat before they hunted wooly mammoths, but hey, it’s completely possible.
Wisconsin: Cheese Curd Pioneers
Cheese curds are perishable: unlike regular cheese, the curds are not completely dried out, which makes them susceptible to bacterial growth and spoilage. This is why cheese curds weren’t as popular in the days before refrigeration: they had to be consumed within hours of manufacture, which meant that they had to be purchased and eaten while near a cheese-making facility.
In the 1840s, immigrants from all over Europe, particularly dairy farmers from Switzerland and Germany, got wind of Wisconsin’s rich farmlands and decided to settle there. Some of the best cheesemakers from the Old World, and some of the best of the fledgling United States, helped turn the sleepy state of Wisconsin into a cheese powerhouse. Of course, where there is cheese, there are cheese curds, and the squeaky sensation became a staple in county fairs, with the curd eventually making its way north across the border. By the late ’50s, Quebecois chefs were adding it to a dish made of French fries and brown sauce, completing the creation of the world’s first poutines.
Cheese Curds Today
By 1922, there were almost 3,000 cheese-making factories in the state. Today, Wisconsin produces over 2 billion pounds of cheese per year and is fast becoming one of the most prominent cheese capitals in the world.
In 2018, cheese and cheese curd production in Wisconsin broke records when it produced more than 3,400,000 pounds of cheese, the largest volume ever produced by the Badger state. So next time you bite into some fresh cheese curds, remember that you’re taking a bite out of history and that our prehistoric ancestors are probably smiling down at us with every squeak.