I think that pun occurs in every article on cheesecake history ever written. And boy, have there ever been a lot of them. I think of cheesecake history as a sort of bottomless pit, one that will take you as deep into the history of food as you care to go, according to your definition of what a cheesecake actually is.
So where to start? Well, if by “cheesecake” you mean a quantity of soft cheese that’s been sweetened, then you could conceivable argue that cheesecake goes back 10,000 years, to the time when sheep were first domesticated and when, some historians think, humans first stumbled upon the curd-creating abilities of rennet. Take a soft, fresh sheep’s milk cheese, add a little honey and — at least according to some definitions — you’ve got cheesecake.
If that’s too loose a definition for you, then you just start moving forward on the food history timeline until you find something that appeals to you. Start with ancient Greece. There you’ll find a beaten concoction of cheese, honey and wheat flour that was supposedly served to contenders at the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. Still not “cheesecake” enough for you? Then scoot ahead another five centuries or so to ancient Rome where sweetened and bay-leaf perfumed mounds of cheese called libum were served, as well as a dish unappetizingly known as placenta, a pre-baked round of bread upon which sweetened soft cheese was mounded.
Now me, I don’t think any of those really qualify as cheesecake any more than a round, flat piece of bread with oil on it qualifies as pizza. Cheesecake in my book is a custard. For those we have to fast forward a thousand years or so to the Middle Ages, the days when custards like flan were all the rage in the court kitchens of Europe (similar dishes were also being served in Asia around that time). No one knows exactly when soft cheeses entered into the custard mix, but it’s probably safe to say that by the time of the Renaissance, people in Europe had the concept of sweet cheese custards pretty well nailed down. These rich but still rather knobbly and curdy concoctions are probably the earliest dishes that qualify as cheesecakes, at least in the Joe universe. Published recipes for them started cropping up in cookbooks in the 1600’s.
Still, it took the invention of cream cheese proper before cheesecakes anything like the ones we know today to hit the scene. That happened in the late 1800’s in — can you guess where? — New York state. But more on that a bit later.