Edam cheese celebrates 75 years at Mississippi State

For The Mississippi Business Journal MSU alumni and fans of the university’s Edam cheese have contributed to a collection of memories involving the distinctive “cannonball” cheese and to a Twitter photo campaign @msstate using the hashtag #SayCheeseState.

MSU alumni and fans of the university’s Edam cheese have contributed to a collection of memories involving the distinctive “cannonball” cheese and to a Twitter photo campaign @msstate using the hashtag #SayCheeseState.

It could be argued that Fredrick Herman “F.H.” Herzer pulled off the greatest coup ever by any faculty member in the history of Mississippi State University.

The scientist’s goal was to create a single product that would bring in revenue for MSU for decades to come while at the same time serve as a marketing tool to showcase the university and its research efforts to the world.

With extremely limited resources, Herzer and his team managed to do just that. And 75 years later, people are still talking about — and buying — Herzer’s world-beating product.

Not many can say that about their Edam cheese.

That’s right — Herzer’s efforts yielded a cheese. But, the university has sold hundreds of thousands of pounds of its Edam and collected millions of dollars in revenue since Herzer first made the product in the 1930s.

So while it might seem a little odd, Mississippi’s largest public university is gearing up for a grand celebration of a simple food product.

On April 20, State will hold a “birthday party” for its Edam, an event so momentous that even Mark Keenum, MSU’s president, will be on hand for the festivities.

It is another successful chapter in the MSU Edam cheese saga, one that for a while looked like anything but something to celebrate.

In the late 1930s, Mississippi State College (later MSU) was one of the leading dairy centers in the entire South. Herzer, who would go on to lead the university’s Dairy Science Department until 1958, wanted to come up with a product that would highlight the work being done in dairy research.

In the end, Edam cheese won out. Several factors contributed to the choice, not the least of which was no one in the South was making Edam at that time. It also travels well, is slow to spoil and has a salty/nutty taste with relatively little odor, making it one the best-selling cheeses in the world going back as early as the 14th century.

While Edam seemed a no-brainer, there were reasons Edam was not being produced domestically and Herzer ran into trouble immediately. The cheese originated in The Netherlands, and the hoops (or molds) to make it had to be ordered from Holland. The year was 1938, and Europe was on the precipice of another world war.

Moving quickly, Herzer placed an order for 10 teakwood hoops. They shipped just days before the ports were closed to international trade.

With hoops in hand, MSU personnel started production, which provided for many challenges. Already limited by only having 10 hoops, the team struggled to find the optimum aging, pressing and salting techniques.

The production woes hurt supply. Over the next decade or so, the group could not make 10 Edams in a day and only a few hundred per year. Thus, there was a long waiting list for the MSU Edam cheese, with sales open almost exclusively to alumni only.

Fortunately, MSU’s Edam would be the beneficiary of some much-needed extra resources and high-tech help from MSU Food Science researchers.

In 1957, 50 new hoops were ordered from Holland. This boosted production to more than 50 Edams daily — when surplus milk was available from the university’s herd.

Production was further enhanced by improvements in dipping the Edam in the bright red paraffin wax that covers it and by the introduction of Cry-O-Vac plastic bags, which not only provided additional quality insurance and but also a place to emboss MSU’s name.

In the early 1970s, cheese-makers incorporated frozen bacterial cultures, which preserved their purity and freshness and, thus, improved the quality of the final product.

While production improved and increased, demand was on the rise. By 1963, approximately 2,400 Edams were produced; yet, supply was outstripped by consumers. The department subsequently moved into a new space named for the Edams’ biggest backer — the Fredrick Herman Herzer Dairy Science facility — and with the additional storage bought yet more hoops.

However, producers still could not meet demand. Major expansions continued through the 1970s — the packaging area was converted to more cool storage place; two new 7,000-pound cheese vats were installed and additions made to the plant’s physical facilities. The latest expansion was completed in 2002.

Today, for thousands around the globe it’s just not the holiday season without family, friends and some Mississippi State University Edam cheese. Production is currently at approximately 400 Edams per day.

The cheese is sold year-round, with the hottest seasons being Christmas and Easter. MSU traditionally sells 50,000-plus Edams during those two holidays alone.

MSU Edam cheese is sold in three-pound balls (48 servings) for $18 per ball. (MSU also offers a reduced-fat Edam for $19 per three-pound ball.)

The university certainly feels it is a success worth remembering.

MSU’s Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station will host a celebration on Saturday, April 20, outside the MAFES Sales Store. Refreshments will be served at the free public event from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

President Keenum will preside over a cake-cutting ceremony, and MSU staff will distribute commemorative Edam cheese-shaped stress balls and mini graters. Guests will be able to view a new video featuring people who helped shape MSU’s dairy program and a display featuring historic photographs and artifacts related to Edam cheese production.

MSU alumni and fans of the university’s Edam cheese have contributed to a collection of memories involving the distinctive “cannonball” cheese and to a Twitter photo campaign @msstate using the hashtag #SayCheeseState.

Additional celebrations will take place during MSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumni breakfast and at other times throughout the anniversary year.

For more information about the Edam cheese and its anniversary celebration, call the MAFES Sales Store at (662) 325-9687, or visit www.msucheese.com.

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