September 19,
2008

 

Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun Time Columnist

Not just plain or chocolate
chip…

Why, Margie Ware wanted to know, looking around the room with
the wide-eyed wonder that makes a good tour guide, why are the big bricks of
cream cheese coming into the Eli’s Cheesecake factory wrapped in BLUE plastic
wrap? Why isn’t it clear, like most plastic wrap?

Hands shot up.

To protect it from the light? Because it’s anti-bacterial?
Because blue keeps out the air better?

No, no, and no.

Margie waited until all the theories had been floated, and then
let loose with the forehead-slapping truth.

“We wrap the cream cheese in blue plastic,” she said, “so if any
plastic goes into the vat, we see it.”

Of course!

That’s why I love factory tours. They are little universities of
practical knowledge, in Eli’s case, the wisdom that comes from turning out up to
25,000 cheesecakes a day. Some aspects are vastly familiar –the cakes still go
into a 375-degree oven for 40 minutes, just like at home. And some are wildly
out of scale — the cakes are mixed in 500-pound batches in mixers 8 feet
tall.

To be honest, cheesecake never particularly floated my boat. But
the boys had a day off school, and I knew that the Eli’s factory,
located
just west of Wright College, is one of a dwindling number of area manufacturers
that still welcome their customers to take a peek. They also have an upscale
deli and a thrift shop bakery, where you can pick up imperfect cheesecakes for
cheap.

The tour had quizzes and prizes and a film featuring, it seemed, every
celebrity to visit or taste an Eli’s cheesecake. In one corner, the original
Mixmaster where Eli Schulman began whipping up cheesecakes in his namesake
steakhouse stands unobtrusively.

His son, Marc Schulman, joined us for lunch — I don’t think he does that for
every visiting customer, but he just might. Cheesecake is a very serious thing
to him, his father’s legacy.

“His dream was this cheesecake,” said Schulman, who wears the Cartier
wristwatch that Frank Sinatra gave his father.

Eli’s 12th annual Cheesecake Festival takes place all day Saturday and
Sunday. The event includes music and demonstrations, such as Beth Nielsen, owner
of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, telling tales of “America’s favorite ingredient” and
showing how to prepare her Cherry Vanilla Chicken, or Diane Smith, of the
Michigan Apple Committee. The full schedule, which includes a classic car show,
is posted online. (www.eli cheesecake.com) There will be cheesecake and
lots of it.

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