Without Traisman, Cheese Fries Might Not Exist

Edwin Traisman, who died this week at 91, played a key role in two breakthroughs in the fast-food industry. Traisman created the process of freezing McDonald's french fries and he was part of a team at Kraft Foods that developed Cheez Whiz.

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A pioneer of American cuisine has died. In the 1950s, Ed Traisman led the team at Kraft Foods that developed one of the iconic products of that decade, and really in all the food history. Cheez Whiz, the spreadable processed cheese food, became a staple in many American refrigerators and it's still celebrated in pop culture, like in this scene from "The Blues Brothers" movie.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Blues Brothers")

Mr. LAYNE BRITON (Actor): (As The Cheez Wiz) Did you give me my Cheez Whiz, boy?

ROBERTS: Traisman's contributions at Kraft were only the first act in a life filled with edible innovation. NPR's Scott Horsley prepared this remembrance.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The 1950s was a busy time at Kraft. Sliced cheese was introduced at the beginning of the decade, and the Cheez Whiz two years later. Ed Traisman played a key role in developing those products, as leader of the processed cheese group at Kraft's Glenview, Illinois laboratory; and later, head of its cheese section.

But Mike Pariza, who later worked with Traisman at the University of Wisconsin's Food Research Institute, says Traisman didn't rest on his bright orange laurels.

Mr. MIKE PARIZA (Director, Food Research Institute, University of Wisconsin): If he had stayed at Kraft, I think he probably would have moved up the ladder very, very far. But he told me the story of driving by this restaurant everyday and seeing all these cars in front. So he stopped and walked in and saw somebody sweeping the floor.

HORSLEY: Pariza says the restaurant was an early McDonald's and the guy sweeping the floor was fast fast-food pioneer Ray Kroc. Traisman left his job at Kraft and opened the first McDonald's franchise in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1957. A few years later, Kroc tapped Traisman's food science expertise to help tackle a vexing problem, inconsistent French fries, says company historian Mike Bullington, who manages McDonald's golden archives.

Mr. MIKE BULLINGTON (Archives Manager, McDonald's Golden Archives): McDonald's used Idaho russet potatoes and they were only available for nine months overthe year. So they went to a California white potato, but these potatoes weren't as crisp as the Idaho French fries.

HORSLEY: McDonald's needed a way to freeze Idaho fries while they were in season, but without destroying their taste or texture. Traisman figured out part of the secret was removing the moisture from the potatoes before freezing. He got a patent on the process in 1962, but allowed McDonald's and its suppliers to use the system for free.

Mr. BULLINGTON: What was significant in that it allowed a revolutionary product to go on the market and still maintained that quality flavor.

HORSLEY: Traisman sold his restaurants in the 1970s and turned to research at the University of Wisconsin. The university's Mike Pariza says even though he didn't have an advance degree, Traisman was well-respected by his colleagues and he continued to tackle serious food challenges, including the emergence of the deadly E. coli bacteria in the late 1980s.

Mr. PARIZA: Actually, we wouldn't let him retire. I mean, he had one of the most amazing careers that I've ever heard of.

HORSLEY: Pariza adds Traisman was sensitive about the nutritional value of his creations and encouraged McDonald's to investigate that. Ed Traisman died Tuesday, following a heart attack. He was 91 years old.

Scot Horsley, NPR News.

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