Growing up, we could work dairy into almost anything. Vegetables, pasta, casseroles, and sandwiches all came blanketed with cheese and served with milk. For us Milwaukeeans, it was a lifestyle, held together by Merkt’s Cheese Spread.
My mom ate cheese spread with pretzels while reading in bed, enjoying the snack with a wine cooler—her version of a wine and cheese pairing. When she turned in for the night, I would sneak the cheese out of the refrigerator and attempt to eat only so much that she couldn’t tell I’d taken any. After all, I hadn’t finished my vegetables at dinner, despite the melted cheese topping, because I was “full.” My family always had it on hand when we went up north each summer. We’d dip pretzels and crackers in the spread while playing games on the front porch. The adults favored the port wine version. I thought it was a little bit gross, but I ate it anyway, believing that it made me seem grown-up.
Growing up, we could work dairy into almost anything. For us Milwaukeeans, it was a lifestyle, held together by Merkt’s Cheese Spread.
The spread, a smooth blend of ground cheese, cream, and other dairy additives, is a classic bar and supper club appetizer, served in stoneware crocks alongside brandy old-fashioneds. Officially, it’s “cold pack cheese food,” which I think is a sterile and soulless name—more like a label manufacturers might use for invoicing than anything I’d want to eat. Though I don’t remember hearing anyone actually call it “cold pack,” family members tell me they’ve heard others use the term.
According to the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the official name signifies that the product is made without the aid of heat, as it has been since, per their account, it originated with a Wisconsin tavern owner in the early 1900s. It isn’t sterilized like processed cheese products, which is why it must be refrigerated at all times, even before opening. Although the spread is now available across the country in a variety of flavors, including habanero, almond, horseradish, bacon, and of course, port wine, over two-thirds of the cold pack sold in the United States still comes from Wisconsin.
And cheese spread is still a staple in my family. We picked up a few containers on our way up north last week. Crackers, pretzels, and fingers made their way into the dip as we sat on the porch, again, and watched boats pass from the pier. Merkt’s will always have a special place in my heart, but these days, we opt for Wisconsin’s Pine River.