Pineapple cheese sounds like an oxymoron and it’s not a pineapple-stuffed cheeseball. But at one time it was a very popular product made in New York State. In Greene it was manufactured right on a dairy farm. It is no longer made but it was produced in Milford, NY, until 1955.
I read an article about pineapple cheese recently, written by Mark Simonson, the City of Oneonta Historian. I was intrigued because he states that George and Mary McNitt of Greene made the cheese at their dairy farm in 1874. In Echoes of the Past, Mildred Folsom writes that the McNitts were Chester Race’s grandparents and they lived on what is now the Holcomb Farm on Jackson Hill Road. Their daughter, Zoe, married Elwyn Race, Chester’s parents. Their pineapple cheeses were shipped to New York City where they were popular in the clubs and fashionable homes in the late 19th century.
The first pineapple cheese was patented around 1810 by Lewis Norton of Troy, Pennsylvania. It was a cheddar-style cheese. Cheddaring was the process where the curds were stacked and turned often for drainage and matting before they were put into pineapple-shaped molds. After the pressed cheese was removed from the molds, it would be put into string bags which would leave criss-cross marks on the surface that resembled a pineapple. The bags would hang for several weeks. An historian of Allegany County, where pineapple cheese was also manufactured, told me making the netting for the cheese was a cottage industry for many housewives. The cheeses were made in several sizes, from a 10-ounce one to the size of a real pineapple. Then the cheeses were coated with shellac for a long shelf life. Yes, shellac!
Mark Simonson relates the story that the Nortons, the patent holders, sent a pineapple cheese to friends on the birth of their daughter in 1822. It was placed on the mantle and reshellacked every year. When the daughter married the Nortons’ son in 1847, the cheese was cut and found to be perfectly preserved.
According to Mildred Folsom, the McNitts’ cheeses in Greene weighed 8 or 9 pounds, so they must have been the size of a pineapple. They were shipped to New York City, four in a box and sold for 24 cents a pound. They had a thriving business as sometimes 20 of these cheeses were made daily.
The cheese was so popular that there was a silver container with a silver top in the shape of a pineapple that would hold it. In The Complete Book of Cheese, the author, Robert Carlton Brown, writes that after you placed the cheese in the container, you cut off the top part of the cheese, just like you would the fruit, and scooped out the cheese with a special silver cheese spoon or scoop. Then you put the silver top back on and the oiled and shellacked rind kept the cheese moist. After the cheese was gone, you could use the rind as a holder for a fondue or whatever your imagination can dream up!
In the 1940s, the government required a substitute for the shellac as a coating for the rind and the popularity of the cheese began to wane. According to Simonson, the factory in Milford sold its equipment to a company in Wisconsin in 1955 where it was made for a while but then stopped.
Greene contributed greatly to this fashion in the Victorian Age. I have found through my research that there are wooden pineapple cheese molds and the netting used on display at a museum in Attica, NY, run by the Historical Society
Keep your eye out for a silver pineapple cheese holder or a silver scoop. Maybe one will show up on eBay and we can add to the wonderful collection of things already acquired by our museum in Greene.