Far from the fattening bakeries of New York City and the delis of Miami Beach, along a highway in Virginia better known for its commerce than its cuisine, there's a small shop with a big sign that brags: "World's Best Cheesecake."
Inside, a team of mixers, bakers and egg-crackers whip up 1,000 to 1,300 cakes each day for shipment to most of the food stores and many of the better restaurants in the Washington area. Dessert lovers as far north as Maine and as far south as Florida swear by World's Best, taking it as the standard against which other cheesecakes are measured.
The cakes don't sell west of Cincinnati yet(though a wine and cheese importer in New Jersey is trying to introduce cowboys and Californians to the brand.) But then, when you're called the world's best, you don't want to spread yourself too thin.
it is more than just a little bit presumptous, of course, for a company this far from Flatbush Avenue to claim title to a food which, like the saucy Coney Island hot dog, New Yorkers consider Indigenous.
Is World's Best really the world's best?
Comparing cheesecakes is - well, it's dangerous. Tasting comparisons invariably arouse passionate partisanship. They have ever since Greeks on the island of Samos cooked up deep-fried, honey-covered cheesecake more than 2,500 years ago. Even New York's restaurants can't agree who was responsible for creating the modern-day version. The legendary Lindy's, The Brass Rail and Reuben's have all staked aclaim to that.
Hanging on a wall at the World's Best bake shop (located on Lee Highway in Fairfax County) are a couple of plaques attesting to the cake's delicousness. One is from the Societe Culinaire Philanthropique de York for first place in the 1963 cheesecake competition there. The other is for first place in the 1962 Washignton D.C., Culinary Art Show.
The best reviews, though, come from the cake's regular tasters. "We've sampled around over the years," said Frank Sarris, manager of Tom Sarris' Orleans House in Arlington, the first restaurant to buty World's Best 20 years ago. %but we've never found one as good as this. Every time we've changed, our customers have wanted World's Best back. It's heckuva cheesecake."
The inventors of this scrumptious mixture of sour cream, cream cheese and Graham cracker crust are Sansbury Sweeney and H. Keene Moore, his nephew.
They hit upon their magic formula in 1957, after five years of trial and error. "We threw away an awful lot of cheesecake during a recent interview.
What kept him going was the desire to find a better cheesecake. "Before, there wasn't really a good cheesecake," he said. "We thought it was time people have one. In my opinion, so many people have been mislead by cheesecake."
Sweency and Moore did their experimenting in the back of a Westover bake shop they used to run. Today, they make only cheesecakes and spend the rest of their northern Virginia farms.
The farthest Sweene will go in revealing the secret of his cheesecake is to desfribe it as a delicate balance of high-grade, all-natural ingredients.
The cream cheese which goes into World's Best cakes comes from a small company named Zausner in central Pennsylavania. ("They get their cheese right from the Amish dairy farmers," Sweeney boasted.) With a butter fat content of 33 per cent, richer than the baker's cheese or neufchatel other cheesecake maekers use.
Even the eggs that World's Best uses are pure instead of powdered. Every Thursday afternoon, two women spend five hours crocking eggs yokes into large vats. The yokes are refrigenerated, then mixed into batter the following week.
Two other factors further distinguish World's Best cakes from the multitude. Unlike New York-style cakes, which have a baked doughy crust, World's Best lines the bottom and sides of its product with Graham Cracker crumbs. On top of the cake it spreads a thin layer of sour cream. "Sour cream has lactic acid which brings out the cheese taste," said Sweency.
When judging cheesecake, Sweeney says to look for three C's: color, creaminess and crust. Color is the most important - a cheesecake should look creamy, with a slight tint of yellow.
World's Best also makes fruit toppings. Strawberry outsells cheery, blueberry and pineapple by far. But the firm draws the line there. Sweency and Moore don't believe in adding chocolate or some other flavoring to the batter.
"We got into marble cheesecake once for one of the airlines,"Sweency recalled. "It was a flop. In my opinion, chocolate cheesecake is not a good cake. Chocolate picks up moisture and dries a cake out. Not only that, but if you want a cake to tast like chocolate, you're going to lose the taste of cheese."
Finally, there is the story of how World's Best gor its name. "A friend thought it up," Sweeney said. "He was a guy who had a supermarket up the block from our old bakery. OI used to let him sample the came when we were still experimenting. He would make signs for his store for weekly specials, and when we finally hit on our formula, he said, 'Let me make you a sign.'
"So he brought it to me. I hadn't known what it was going to say. It said 'World's Best Cheesecake! I sort of liked it, and we started selling under that billing, and we've kept it ever since."
About 15 years ago, Sweeney applied for a trademark. The Patent Office refused at first, on the ground the name was laudatory, Sweeney took the matter to court and partially won. The name was ordered listed on what is called the supplementary register, meaning it still could be challenged.
On Aug. 2, recognizing that the World's Best name has become well-known in cheesecake circles, the Patent Office allowed ti to be promoted to the principal register.