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A Delicious Slice of History

Αssociated Press

A man and a woman walk in front of the 444 BC ancient marble temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, south of Athens on Monday May 18, 2020.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

That rich, creamy, decadent dessert called cheesecake is famous across the world.  But how many know that we have the ancient Greeks to thank for this beloved dessert? In fact, cheesecake had its origins in Samos. Excavated cheese molds were found there that dated 2000 BC. It was made with a softened cheese base and was considered a good source of energy. In Samos, it was also a first choice of cake for Greek brides and Grooms. Made from flour, wheat, honey and softened cheese, like Mizithra, it was baked and formed into size. In 230 AD, writer Athenaeus was first to write it in recipe form. And, from there was sent to various areas of Greece. There is evidence that Olympic athletes were treated to cheesecake before each event.

Then, when the Romans came to disrupt the peace and glory of Greece, they adopted it as their own calling it Libuma and thought it so special that they presented it as offerings to the Gods at temples. Through the years, its popularity spread. Thanks to the ever conquering Romans, its fame spread across Europe and variations of cheesecake could be found throughout northwestern Europe, including England and Scandinavia. The Japanese used a combination of cornstarch and egg whites along with the usual ingredients, adding Tofu. The Italians used Ricotta. And King Henry VIII’s chef made it by soaking Dutch cheese for 3 hours in milk before pressing all the other ingredients together.

Technically, cheesecake is not a cake. It’s a pie! But, today there are so many versions that it is difficult to distinguish from the original. Yet, some are either baked while others are made firm without having to cook the custard base by simply refrigerating it. In 1872, New York dairyman, William Lawrence, accidently invented cream cheese when trying to find a cheese that was softer and cheaper than the French cheese, Neufchatel.  What he hadn’t counted on was that his mistake would revolutionize every cheesecake recipe. William Lawrence’s cheese was taken up by the Philadelphia Cream Cheese Company, wrapped in aluminum foil and sold across the US. Since then, many restaurants have adapted their own version of the cheesecake with Turf Restaurant laying claim as the original creators.

But, in 1929, German born New Yorker, Arnold Reuben, of sandwich fame, decided to try the Philadelphia cream cheese instead of the other stuff.  He inadvertently revolutionized the dessert and given credit for introducing and making it famous in New York. It became the icon of desserts. Of course, many cheesecake aficionados have their favorite version of the recipe. But, you and I now know that the original cheesecake was not created by Arnold Reuben or any of those other owners of delis, taverns, or bakeries in New York, Chicago or elsewhere. Neither do the Romans, English, or Scandinavians or King Henry VIII’s chef, or any other cook deserve the credit. Historians all agree that, according to careful excavations, it was recorded and traced to the island of Samos and the credit belongs to the Samioti. And, ever since then, beginning over 4000 years ago, the dessert remains a worldwide favorite.

Important to note, Herodotus, the most famous writer and historian, was born in Halicarnassus but was exiled with his family to Samos when they were caught actively denouncing the oppressive tyrant, Persian ruler, Lygdamis, whose name is now used when referring to filth, (Lhgda). Although they went there for their activism, I prefer to believe that Herodotus and his family went there for the cheesecake.