Like most people, I assumed cheesecake was either invented in New York or brought here in the 1800’s by one of the groups of European immigrants. It could have been the Jews, Italians, or even the Hungarians. All seem to currently have a version of cheesecake in modern day NYC.
But the real story about cheesecake is much more surprising. The origins of cheesecake is not from a little village in Germany, but in fact in ancient Greece (possibly on the island of Samos). Cheesecake in one form (“pounded cheese, mixed with honey and spring wheat”) was served to the participants at the first Olympic games since cheesecake was thought to possess a lot of energy. Can you imagine Michael Phelps stuffing a slice in his face between laps today?
After the Romans conquered Greece, they stole the recipe, modified it, used it as an offering to the Gods (those were some lucky Gods), and began spreading it (along with their armies) across Western Europe. The Ancient Greek cheesecake was tweaked as each nation that discovered cheesecake put their own spin on it – like a very delicious game of telephone. Most began to use beaten eggs (as opposed to yeast) which gave the dessert a sweeter, richer flavor. Many Europeam immigrants brought their own distinct cheesecake recipe to New York when they immigrated here.
But then New York added their own ingredient when cream cheese was invented in 1872 in New York (not in Philadelphia). A dairy farmer named William Lawrence accidentally made cream cheese in his failed attempt to re-create a Frech soft cheese called Neufchâtel. It might have been one of the best failures ever.
The origins about how cream cheese entered the cheesecake recipe and made New York famous for its rendition of the cake is much disputed. However, most people agree that it was a Jewish-German immigrant named Arnold Reuben who first put cream cheese-based cheesecake on his menu in 1929 at his famous delicatessen Reuben’s (you can guess another iconic NY dish that was claimed to be invented there). The story goes Arnold Reuben tasted a cheese pie (probably made with cottage cheese) at a dinner party and then decided to make it his own. Turns out he made it his own for generations of New Yorkers.
Since then, the recipe continues to be tweaked and expanded for different cultures (we now have Japanese cheesecake) and tastes (think strawberry or chocolate cheesecake). New York might be the youngest city to claim cheesecake as its own, but we’ve put our unique stamp on it and I, for one, am very grateful because now I get to shut up and… Eat This!